Sheldon Silver’s Epic Fall Ushers in a New Era in Albany

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NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 09:  New York Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver attends Century 21 Department Store Expansion Ribbing Cutting Ceremony at Century 21 on April 9, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Sheldon Silver is out as speaker of the New York State Assembly. Probably. Definitely by Monday. It appears.

A stunning six-day political drama concluded in Albany tonight. Democratic members of the Assembly have hashed out a deal to make one of Silver’s allies, Majority Leader Joe Morelle of Rochester, interim speaker until the election of a new, permanent speaker on February 10. What promises to be a wild two-week campaign is already under way, with high stakes for the governor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, labor unions, and county leaders.

The particulars of Silver’s exit are still somewhat vague — he will supposedly resign by Monday or be voted out then, during the Assembly’s next session. But the weirdness of the ending, and the way Silver’s ouster unfolded, with him trying desperately to cling to power, speaks to how epic his fall is, and how state government is starting a messily uncertain — and in some ways hopeful — new era.

Silver’s political demise, after spending 20 years as a dominant force in state government, turned on one major miscalculation and two days of marathon negotiations. His big mistake — well, other than being arrested last Thursday on five felony counts, charged with trading government money and favors for $4 million — came over the weekend. He was due to return to Albany on Monday and confront the growing effort to sideline him. So Silver pieced together what he thought he could sell as a compromise: He’d stay as speaker but delegate power to five lieutenants. The group had some meager political diversity — it included one woman, two blacks, and an upstater, Morelle. More important was that Silver believed he could count on their allegiance.

Installing a ruling quintet would have been troubling for good-government reasons, conjuring comparisons to a jailed Mafia don continuing to exercise power through his capos still out on the streets. But what also scuttled the idea was that Silver allowed word to get out too soon, on Sunday. “Shelly should have just announced it at the meeting Monday and it would have been done,” an Assembly insider says. “He gave people too much time to organize a rebellion.”

Keeping things quiet might have been easier, however, if Silver had included Harlem assemblyman Keith Wright among the chosen few. Instead, Silver went with Carl Heastie of the Bronx as his downstate minority choice, angering Wright, who quickly and publicly declared that Silver must go. On Monday night, Assembly Dems delivered a vote of no confidence in the speaker.

From there the fault lines rapidly multiplied — upstate versus downstate, white versus black, Silver insiders versus everybody else. On the positive side, this was democracy in action, for the first time in a long time in the Assembly, as coalitions formed and collapsed and no consensus replacement for Silver emerged. Those divisions have existed on plenty of policy issues before, but their furious emergence now highlighted how artful Silver had been at unifying the Assembly for so long, through a combination of rewards and intimidation.

Outsiders think that Assembly members stood by Shelly for so many years because they are hacks,” one former state elected official says. “Not true. It was because he delivered for people on their issues, especially progressive social and budget issues.” So the biggest thing Silver still had working in his favor was concern about creating a power vacuum, which would likely be filled by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

But four other, less obvious factors outweighed that worry, and they fueled the opposition to Silver as he dug in his heels and refused to resign. The first is that roughly 50 percent of the Assembly’s Democratic seats have turned over since 2007, reducing the size of Silver’s base of longtime loyalists. The second factor is that many of those newer members are more conservative than Silver and his older compatriots. The third is that Democratic incumbents, particularly liberal ones, are deeply concerned about their own reelection this fall. “It’s easy to see districts, like on the Upper East Side, where supporting Shelly now could be a killer in a Democratic primary this fall,” an Assembly veteran says.

Underlying everything, though, particularly for the more senior Assembly members, is the fear of Preet Bharara. The U.S. Attorney, in announcing the charges behind Silver’s arrest last week, suggested ominously that the press and public “stay tuned” for more corruption prosecution news. As the battle to push Silver out raged behind close doors on the Assembly side of the state capitol, rumors swirled that several state senators had recently hired new lawyers.

Maybe those senators simply need to update their wills or renegotiate their mortgages. But the nervousness about more indictments or arrests was palpable, and Silver badly underestimated its effect. Casting out Silver from the Assembly’s midst isn’t likely to have any practical effect on Bharara’s investigations. But it at least made some legislators feel a little less anxious, for now.