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The Obstructionist

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The first deal Bloomberg cut with Silver became, in many ways, the defining moment of Bloomberg’s idea of post-political technocracy: winning mayoral control of city schools. Mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani wanted the same thing. But, with Bloomberg, “I was willing to take a chance with him,” Silver says.

They spoke frequently; Silver was as cooperative as he ever is. They finished the deal in a back room at the Prime Grill, a kosher steakhouse in midtown. “We spent three hours finishing it up in that room, and we were able to work through some very difficult issues.” For Bloomberg, trying to get something as widely supported as mayoral control of schools, when Pataki and Bruno and the unions and the editorial boards and the good-government groups were all pushing for it, was a primer on how difficult it truly is to complete a negotiation with Silver. (They’re about to start again, since mayoral control is up for renewal next year.)

Then Bloomberg tried to build a football stadium on the West Side. Bloomberg delegated his economic-development czar, Dan Doctoroff, to sell Silver on the plan. As Doctoroff went through his presentation about how the stadium could boost the economy on the far West Side, Silver merely nodded along in silence. Afterward, according to a source involved in the deal, Doctoroff was optimistic that Silver liked the stadium plan. He didn’t stop nodding. Nodding means yes, right? Not really. Nodding means I hear ya. I hear ya can also mean no. “You think you have an agreement with him,” Bloomberg said at the time, “and then Shelly puts out his hand and says, ‘Wait a minute, one more thing.’ ”

“On the Jets’ stadium, I said no, all by myself,” Silver says. “It wasn’t an issue before the Legislature, and it didn’t make sense. To put a football stadium on the West Side? And spend billions in taxpayer money? The fans didn’t even want it. Not one elected official in the district wanted it. It still doesn’t make sense.” He was also concerned it would distract from the redevelopment of ground zero, in his district. But the Dolan family, who own Madison Square Garden and are Silver supporters, were also dead set against it.

Silver was unbowed. “There is no relationship if it is one of convenience,” he said then. “I respect the mayor’s right to disagree with me. If he doesn’t respect my right to disagree with him, then I guess there is no relationship.”

Then Silver had to deal with another rich Upper East Sider, Eliot Spitzer. In December 2006, the governor-elect wanted a say in choosing the replacement for Silver’s old Assembly crony Alan Hevesi, the state comptroller who’d pleaded guilty to improperly directing a state trooper to chauffeur his infirm wife. The Assembly has the authority to choose the comptroller, and Silver wanted to appoint one of his members. The standoff resulted in a panel to pick a replacement, but when the panel didn’t pick Silver’s choice, the usually lethargic Assembly sprung into action, voting in one of theirs, Thomas DiNapoli. Spitzer responded by boycotting Silver’s events. Silver was surprised Spitzer “reacted in the way that he did.”

Spitzer’s approach toward Silver was, as it turns out, unwise. “In hindsight, we underestimated Shelly and the power of the Assembly, in a ridiculous way,” says one of Spitzer’s top aides. In the course of Spitzer’s first year, Silver’s relationship with the governor improved. Spitzer sought his advice. He became, the aide says, “like a student who was getting A’s.”

One of the last phone calls Silver received from Spitzer was when the then-governor called after his sex-scandal broke to inquire about his chances of surviving an impeachment vote. “I don’t know,” Silver told him. “I need time.” Spitzer didn’t have time.

“You know, life moves on, as far as we’re concerned,” Silver says. “I got to know Eliot Spitzer, got to work with him. After a rough beginning, I think we settled very well. But there’s a new governor in town, and it’s time to work with him. It’s plain and simple.”

Paterson is as jovial and open as Silver is guarded and risk-averse. But the two have one thing in common: As creatures of the Legislature, they respect the process. And unlike Spitzer, Paterson’s not trying to destroy Bruno.

On the West Side Highway, stuck in traffic, Silver fidgets in his seat of the Chrysler and watches both his watches. We can hear jackhammers and see the glassy condos of Battery Park. When he first took office, those condos were landfill for the World Trade Center; now those towers are gone and there’s another hole in the ground and more construction crews are on the highway. The city has changed. His district has changed. Silver is proud that he’s never forgotten about home. He doesn’t eat pork, but he’s delivered millions in taxpayer dough to groups he’s close with, and tennis courts, and ballparks, and funds to build new senior centers and new schools. In Chinatown, he is known as Seel-wah. (“It means, literally, ‘Glorious One,’ ” says Virginia Kee, an operative in Chinatown.)


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