Silver does not consider himself a leader per se. “I just don’t go out there,” he says. “I’m almost in a position of the union leader who listens to people, goes out, tries to get the best possible deal from the bosses, and then comes back and says, ‘Look, we may not be able to get you better health insurance, but I can get you a better pension.’ ”
This is how he recalls his role during congestion pricing, too. He says Bloomberg called the day before the federal matching funds promised for the scheme were to expire. The mayor thought he had the votes to get the plan through the Assembly. Not so, Silver says he told him.
“It’s not even close.”
Bloomberg pleaded. “That’s why you’re there.”
“If it’s a matter of five or six votes I could probably put you over the top,” Silver said. “This is not that issue.”
Says Silver of Bloomberg: "I'm probably the only person in life who ever told him no that he didn't take over, that he didn't buy."
In Albany, backed by his conference, Silver can be such an obstacle that he’s arguably as powerful as the governor. And it’s been frustrating for some to think that a man who won his last primary in a district where just 9,348 people voted carries so much heft. When Silver became speaker in 1994, Mario Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, was governor. He was a rising star in the party, planning to run for president. But by the fall of 1994, Cuomo lost to Pataki. Silver sized up both governors by playing basketball with them. “Mario is a small guy who likes to get on the inside and mix it up. George is the biggest guy on the court and always shoots from the outside.” As for Silver himself, “I like to mix it up.”
“He plays basketball just like he runs the Assembly,” Cuomo says. “He’s a very tough defender.” And tough to play with. “Shelly and I both love basketball,” Pataki says. “The difference is I loved to move the ball forward and he invented the four-corners offense, which was ultimately banned by the NCAA, since it essentially just amounted to stalling.”
With Bruno and Pataki running things, Silver negotiated hard. “We were the minority,” he says. “When Pataki proposed we give property-tax cuts to wealthy people, we got a universal pre-K program as the counterpart. We got a class-size-reduction program as part of it.”
Silver often came to the negotiating table by himself and dragged out the process so long that budgets were chronically late. Meanwhile, everyone waits.
Often literally. Because he insists on driving his own car, without security or a chauffeur, he’s chronically late to meetings. In the fall of 1995, when Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Pataki booked a flight for Silver and other Jewish lawmakers to attend the funeral in Jerusalem. Before they left, Pataki held a press conference at JFK. But Silver was missing.
Twenty minutes passed. Zenia Mucha, then Pataki’s communication director, fired off an irate phone call to Judy Rapfogel, Silver’s chief of staff.
“Where is he?” Mucha said.
“He’s parking the car,” Rapfogel said.
“What do you mean he’s parking the car! Tell the driver to just pull up out front and just drop him off and let’s go.”
“No, you don’t understand, he’s parking the car.”
Silver also has a side gig working for Weitz & Luxenberg, one of the biggest personal-injury firms in the state. Silver’s role there is so controversial that judges (they’ve been barking for pay raises) are refusing to hear cases from lawyers at the firm (one recently called him a “slug” because he’s been trying to tie judicial raises to raises for his legislators—Silver’s their union leader, after all). Silver won’t disclose how much he makes for the firm because state ethics laws are so weak they don’t require him to make them public. He also isn’t interested in overhauling these ethics requirements; that wouldn’t be too popular among his members. “I don’t represent corporations,” he says. “I don’t represent anybody who in any way has an impact on anything we do legislatively. They are individuals who, through some unfortunate circumstance, are injured …”
When Bloomberg won the mayoralty, in the fall of 2001, the victory was a blow to Silver and the Democratic machine. The candidate Silver supported in that race was Farrell’s choice, Fernando Ferrer, who lost to Mark Green. The day after getting sworn into office, Bloomberg called Silver and said, according to Silver, “You know a lot more than I do about government. We should be close.”
In office, Bloomberg, who declined to be interviewed for this article, continued the charm offensive and invited Silver, along with Bruno, to his home in Bermuda to play golf for a weekend. (Silver’s been a golf junkie after he injured himself on the basketball court a few years ago; he was playing with his kids and dove for a loose ball.) Bloomberg also trekked down to the Lower East Side, to attend the bris of Silver’s grandson. “The mayor believes that as long as you break bread with somebody, you can make a deal with them,” says Bill Cunningham, who was advising Bloomberg then. “The problem with Shelly is that breaking bread is good, but it’s not good enough. He believes what he believes and does what his members want; there’s not too much wiggle room.”