Both outwardly humble and competitive, Silver adapted well to Albany’s hierarchies. “He was our eyes and ears on committees,” says Kenneth Shapiro, the former chief counsel for the then speaker, Stanley Steingut. “Stanley really got a kick out of Shelly,” Shapiro says. “He had this old-world flavor.” Steingut represented the Flatbush section of Brooklyn but was entrenched in the uptown Jewish power-broker circles of bankers and philanthropists—the Sulzberger and Spitzer types of his day—who were mostly Reform and of German ancestry. Then, in 1978, Steingut lost a primary to an unknown. “Stanley forgot about home,” says Shapiro. “Shelly paid special attention to that lesson: Never forget about home.”
Silver immersed himself in the arcane details of public policy. After Saul Weprin became speaker in 1991, he appointed Silver to take his place as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. “My father saw a lot of himself in Shelly,” says City Councilman David Weprin. “My father was a low-key guy, not flamboyant, not looking for higher office, always trying to protect the members and protect the institution of the Assembly.” Two years into his tenure, Weprin suffered a fatal stroke. Silver spoke at Weprin’s funeral in Queens. A month later, he became the first speaker to come from Manhattan since 1913. At the swearing-in ceremony, there were women in wigs and long skirts, and rabbis with long beards.
One of Silver’s first moves as speaker was shrinking his inner circle. Notably, he chose not to take on a chief counsel, traditionally the speaker’s most important adviser. “Apparently, he fancied himself as his own best lawyer,” says Shapiro, who by then was in with Wilson Elser, a law firm with a top lobbying practice. Silver doesn’t believe in delegation. “I like to buy wholesale,” Silver says.
He tightened the reins further. To fill his place as chairman of Ways and Means, he appointed his county’s own political boss, Herman “Denny” Farrell Jr., who went on to run the state party, too. Together, Silver and Farrell were a potent political team: the downtown Jew and the uptown black.
Soon many in the Assembly were chafing at his style. Silver wasn’t very available, or social. “You could not get five minutes with him, it was that bad,” says Nelson Denis, then a two-term assemblyman from East Harlem. “My constituents were some of the poorest people in this city. We needed his help.” Denis joined a growing faction of dissidents who were plotting a putsch against Silver. Their leader was Silver’s underboss in the Assembly, Michael Bragman. On May 17, 2000, Bragman announced that he’d secured enough votes to topple Silver.
“I knew it was coming, but I didn’t think he would do it so soon. I figured he would wait until after the elections,” Silver says. He went into action and, along with Farrell, began working the phones. Silver stripped Bragman and his allies of their committee-chair positions and reportedly even locked Bragman out of his own office. He then cut deals behind closed doors to win back enough support to keep his job. (Both Bragman and Denis eventually left the Assembly.)
"I hear ya” means he sympathizes. “I hear ya” means he hears ya. “I hear ya” means nothing at all."
In many ways, Silver’s ability to head off the coup was his finest hour, allowing him to exhibit what’s kept him in power: control of the inside game in Albany. Silver learned his lessons. “There are really two Shellys,” says his friend Jacob. “There’s a pre-Bragman Shelly and a post-Bragman Shelly. The post-Bragman Shelly listens very closely to his members. He also isn’t as trusting.”
Silver changed his bedside manner, instituting birthday parties for Assembly members. He focused on the work at hand. He and Farrell pushed the Democratic conference in the Assembly to an almost-too-cumbersome majority that, crucially, was veto-proof under Pataki. Silver always finds a way to juggle the diversity of his Assembly members’ needs. “It’s basically like running a three-ring circus up there, and then walking the tightrope between all three rings,” says Avi Shick, the departing chief of the Empire State Development Corporation. Should Silver follow the wishes, say, of his upstate members to repeal the commuter tax (which he did), which has cost the city an estimated $5.5 billion? Should Silver challenge the rabbis in his synagogue (which he did) by supporting gay-rights legislation?
“The way Shelly operates is very similar to that of a judge,” says Brian Meara, a lobbyist and longtime friend of Silver’s. “He renders decisions. Some for, some against.” Shapiro, who is also close with Silver, says, “Shelly’s greatest strength is that he is a very good deliberative thinker. Almost Talmudic in his approach. This also happens to be his greatest weakness.” True? Silver rests his hands on his chest and says, “I’m deliberating.”