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The Obstructionist

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Sheldon Silver out and about on the Lower East Side.   

But petitioning for the primary starts this week, and Silver is clearly taking it seriously. He’s hired a new consulting firm. He is appearing in public more often. He is polling. He will knock on doors. He is talking about himself in the third person. “Sheldon Silver will do what he has to in order to get reelected,” he says.

While we’re stuck in traffic, I notice that Silver is wearing two watches: the gold watch on the right wrist was a gift from his wife, Rosa, a schoolteacher, and he’s worn this watch for the last fifteen years. But it stopped working, and a new battery didn’t seem to get it going again. So Silver’s wearing another watch on his left wrist, the backup, checking them against each other, hoping that the old standby works once more. “If there’s anything Shelly does,” one of his former aides told me, “he never leaves anything to chance.”

Silver is a man of habit and caution and quirks. He’s 64 years old, but he looks a bit older. He abstains from alcohol and caffeine. (“Steady,” he says, offering a still hand, proudly.) His old-fashioned suits are custom made and contain no linen or wool. (“A kosher suit,” his Brooklyn tailor explains.) He gets his hair cut for $14 at Astor Place Haircutters. He likes his hot dogs well done. He does not eat chicken. (“No birds.”) He’s the opposite of Paterson, known for his reporter-friendliness and self-deprecating, ready-with-a-quip style.

“I don’t make a lot of noise,” Silver says.

His father was the same way. He ran wholesale hardware stores around the city. Headquarters was on Ludlow Street, just below Broome. Silver was the youngest of four children. His family lived on the first floor at 235 Henry, a tenement, and his grandparents lived upstairs. “We moved out of here by my 5th birthday,” he says. “Moved to Hillman.”

The Sidney Hillman houses, named after the garment-union leader, are among the brick co-op behemoths that dominate the eastern end of Grand Street; they were designed to supplant the tenements with modern fixtures, light, and air. They were affordable too, only $16 a month per room. Silver’s dad put all the kids’ diplomas up on the living-room wall. “Whenever we had a guest, he would show them the wall and say, ‘Now how do you like my $100,000 wallpaper?’”

Grand Street was a universe unto itself. “To be an East Side boy like Shelly, you have to understand, was a very insular experience,” says Heshey Jacob, a longtime friend. But Silver was an ambitious kid. “He’d always say that he wanted to be president of the United States, even at 10, 11 years old,” says Lenny Greher, another friend. “If he wasn’t an Orthodox Jew, who knows? Maybe it could have happened.”

“My father taught us the value of a dollar,” Silver says, and the rules of success. “Never negotiate against yourself.” And: “You have to be able to walk away.” There are tricks, too. Like reading body language. Like controlling the tone and volume of your voice. Sometimes, in mid-conversation, Silver will dial down to an ultralow garble. You have to lean in close, one ear first, get a whiff of his Brut cologne, and listen hard to hear him. “The strategy,” another of his former aides says, “is to give himself time to smell out the landscape.” In other words, stall. And hide. The whispery mumbles offer Silver “a chance to not share his thought process.” This creates confusion, and confusion is good. It gives Silver the chance to reassess what he said, the landscape in which he said it, and, should he choose, to say something else. “Some people call it playing games or telling you half of the story,” the former aide says. “Really, all the low talk, it’s just a way to buy time, so he can figure out the best possible deal.”

The line he likes to use the most? “I hear ya.” I hear ya means he sympathizes. I hear ya means he hears ya. I hear ya means nothing at all.

“It’s part of negotiations,” he says. “What can I tell you?”

As a kid, Silver was good at basketball. “My job was controlling the ball. I always controlled the ball,” he says. Silver’s dad wanted him to be a judge, and he went to Yeshiva University and Brooklyn Law. Then, as now, the judgeships were controlled by the political clubs, many of which grew out of Tammany Hall. Silver joined a reform club and started clerking. In 1974, Silver decided to run for City Council. “I realized, or people told me, that I would be a good spokesman for the community,” he says. He lost by 95 votes. But the vote tallies showed him way ahead along Grand Street. Silver deduced that meant that he’d have an easier time with the local State Assembly seat, which was centered on the co-ops. He ran, and won. “I figured I’d spend a few years in public service, then become a judge,” he says.


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