Shelly Silver is stuck in traffic. He’s got the windows up, the air conditioning on. We were cruising from the old part of his district—the Lower East Side—to the newish part—Battery Park City—and are now idling in his pale-green, state-owned Chrysler 300 on the West Side Highway. There’s a van with rust on the rims and salsa blaring next to us, and Silver is shifting in the driver’s seat, explaining what really happened to Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing plan, which, like so many of the mayor’s ideas, was quashed in his Assembly chamber. He looks out the windshield from underneath his floppy-brimmed fedora, which is not quite black but dark red. His glasses are smudged. His voice is low and deep, slow and sober.
He recalls a conversation he had with Robert Rubin—the former Treasury secretary, current Citigroup director, and friend of the billionaire mayor’s. Rubin, like us, was also stuck in traffic and decided to give Silver a call to talk up the proposal. Silver says, “Let me ask you something, Bob. Are you in one of those limo-type cars?” He was. “You know under the mayor’s plan your car doesn’t pay to be congesting, it’s only the little guy. He exempted the cabs, he’s exempted the limos. I mean, I look at it sometimes and I say, Yeah, he doesn’t care about paying $8. What does it mean to him? Just get the riffraff off the streets, you know, just get the poor people off the streets so they can’t use them … ”
Silver’s handling of congestion pricing was the latest example of his secretive way of wielding power. He has a remarkable ability to seem to hold two contradictory positions at the same time. Officially, he was in favor of it, because, he says, it would help his district, where we’re currently stuck in traffic. But philosophically, he was against it. A personal-injury lawyer by trade, he saw it as just one more overly ambitious big idea from the uptown technocrats—the same people who tried to give the city follies like the West Side stadium, which he also stopped. Plus he was feeling rushed; the mayor wanted to make this momentous change without sufficient time for him to think things through.
Over three decades in Albany, which is consistently cited by good-government groups as one of the most dysfunctional state governments in the country, Silver has become the master of the process. With all the tumult of the last couple of years—Joe Bruno, the leader of the State Senate, under federal investigation; George Pataki, an uninspired Republican governor, replaced by Eliot Spitzer, imperious and quickly self-immolating, leaving David Paterson in his place—Silver has been a constant. Perhaps a bit too constant. For many, even in his party, he’s the embodiment of the status quo, too engaged in the maintenance of his own power. Which brings us back to congestion pricing. Silver’s job is to keep his assemblymen happy and increase his majority—currently 106 of 150 seats are filled by Democrats—and many of them worried they’d be hurt by congestion pricing.
Silver took a beating in the press after the scheme died, though. Bloomberg said, “It takes a special kind of cowardice” for Silver to not have his members vote on the plan, a sentiment echoed by the Times’ editorial board, which declared that Silver, once again, “failed to put New Yorkers’ needs before his personal agenda. That makes him unworthy of his office.”
Silver says he is unfazed. “I have broad shoulders,” he says. “I have thick skin.” He thinks Bloomberg just can’t handle rejection. “I’m probably the only person in life who told him no that he didn’t take over, that he didn’t buy …” And the Times’ editorial board is stuck in “their ivory tower.” He’s had it with the Times. “I stopped meeting with their editorial board.” He rarely meets with the press at all. “The press has an agenda,” he says. He’s not a showboat; he’s an obscurantist, an endgame player. This is how he’s survived. But the State Assembly holds elections every two years, and for the first time in 22 years, he has primary opponents. Both were born in 1974, the year Silver first ran for office. One’s a progressive community activist and Obama delegate who happened to become Facebook friends with Bloomberg’s political brain, Kevin Sheekey, on the very day congestion pricing died. The other is a corporate lawyer who’s worked for a firm that’s close to political allies of Silver’s over the years, prompting rumors that he might be a ringer designed to split the vote and return Silver to Albany. Silver dismisses such talk. “I don’t know either one, never heard of either one; I don’t really know people who know either one, as well,” he says. Besides, “If I were supporting somebody, they’d say nicer things about me than either one of these guys are saying.”