It’s an emotionally satisfying meme for good-government types and righteous editorial-page writers: This time, Sheldon Silver has finally gone too far! Responsibility for the irresponsible state budget, which was cobbled together in unprecedented secrecy, clearly rests with the State Assembly speaker — Silver will pay the political price for all the tax increases and for shutting out Albany’s other legislators! And when the state’s finances only get worse in the coming months, the bull’s-eye on Silver’s back will grow fatally large!
Two things should be be eminently clear from New York’s past two decades of political history. First, that whether the office is occupied by genial George Pataki, steamroller Eliot Spitzer, or accidental David Paterson, the governor does not run the state. Thanks to the tangle of self-serving procedural rules and the nearly bulletproof incumbency of state legislators, real power rests with the leaders of the State Senate and Assembly. That balance has shifted slightly in the past year, as longtime Senate Republican boss Joe Bruno retired just ahead of an indictment and the Obama landslide of last November, which put the Senate under the nominal control of the Democrats. But the new Senate majority’s margin is so thin, and so fractious, that it has merely served to reinforce Albany’s second iron law: Shelly Silver only gets stronger.
The man was first elected in 1976, and maneuvered into the speaker’s chair in 1994. He is a world-class poker-faced negotiator, skilled at waiting out governors, mayors, and courts. Critics on the right have ranted about his outside job as an attorney “of counsel” to the personal injury behemoth Weitz & Luxenberg, which makes a fortune from personal injury lawsuits — while Silver blocks medical malpractice and tort reform measures. The left rails about Silver’s refusal to open government deliberations to the public. Mayor Mike Bloomberg fulminated that Silver was doing the bidding of Cablevision when he killed the West Side Stadium. None of it makes a dent.
Granted, the level of outrage — a page-one Times story attacking Silver this week, in particular — and the damage to the state’s economy is higher than usual, and Silver is personally identified with the Albany mess more than ever, thanks mostly to the utter weakness of Paterson and Senate majority leader Malcolm Smith. The soon-to-soar subway fare, gas tax, and car fees will dial up the volume some more. But the odds of dislodging Silver haven’t changed significantly. Last year Silver, whose district covers lower Manhattan, faced his first primary challenge in two decades. He had a competent opponent, a community organizer named Paul Newell, who got the endorsement of all three of the city’s daily papers — a rare feat. Silver crushed Newell, 68–23. One reason was that Silver had the canvassing help of the Working Families Party — yes, the same folks who last week brought the state the $6 billion “millionaire’s tax” with the crucial leadership of a grateful Shelly. The WFP, and labor unions who did well in the budget deal thanks to Silver, are sure to have his back if anyone dares to challenge their champion in 2010.
So if he can’t be defeated at the voting booth, how about merely pushing Silver out of his powerful perch atop the assembly? His members claim to be angry that he kept them in the dark during the budget dealings. But they grumbled a lot in 2000, too, and even attempted a coup; Silver quickly squashed it and ran its leader out of town. And the current hurt feelings will vanish very quickly when the checks start to arrive in Democratic districts all across the state. Critics may decry it as pork, the money being spent on the Urban Yoga Foundation, the American Association for the Improvement of Boxing, and a museum of brick-making; others, particularly the defenders of worthy projects that are receiving taxpayer funding, see the individually modest grants as democracy in action. But there’s one sure way to look at the $170 million in “member items” included in the supposedly hard-times budget: It’s Sheldon Silver’s insurance policy. He’s not going anywhere he doesn’t want to go anytime soon.