He still lives in Hillman, two floors below the apartment he grew up in. “It’s functional,” he says of the pad he and his wife share. “Dining room. Living room. Bedroom. That’s it. Functional.” His plainness is refreshing to his supporters.“He’s still a neighborhood person,” says the comedian Jerry Stiller, who grew up on the same street as Silver. “He represents real people, and he talks like a real person. He doesn’t have any of that fillagadushashenabarolabambamtooteeyay!” (If you’re from the old neighborhood, apparently, that makes sense.)
Except it’s not the old neighborhood anymore. As local party heavy, Silver sponsors candidates for judgeships, but they sometimes lose to rivals from the Chinatown machine. And the dirty, noisy tenement streets his family sought to escape have become postcollegiate playpens. The kosher delis he used to go to are now nightclubs—like Ratner’s—or condo sites—like Gertles. Even the Grand Street co-ops have changed, as young families move in, paying market rates.
His challengers in the September primary come from this new neighborhood. Paul Newell, the Obama delegate, has lived with roommates in Chinatown for the last ten years. He works in nonprofits, buys his clothes on eBay, and speaks fluent Spanish. Newell says he was frustrated by Silver’s grip on the Assembly, and so in 2004, on Primary Day, he looked forward to voting for the guy running against him. But there was no opponent. When he complained to an old woman on the street, he says she told him, “Well, if you feel so strongly about it, why don’t you run?” So he decided to. Right now, he says, he’s knocked on over 4,500 doors in the neighborhood, and he’s planning on knocking on them all.
BlogPAC, a national consortium of progressive bloggers, supports him, and, considering its long-standing beef with Silver, the Times just might, too. But Newell won’t talk about Bloomberg, or whether anything with Sheekey has gone beyond Facebook. “My policy is that I don’t comment on conversations I’ve had with elected officials,” he says.
The other candidate, Luke Henry, is more buttoned-down. He’s been in the corporate-law meat grinder, working for five firms over the last five years (Wilkie Farr was his last). With a baby on the way, he decided to try his hand at politics with a long-shot bid. He moved back to the district from the West Village last September. The timing of this move was suspicious to Newell, who’d already been making noise about challenging Silver. Doubly suspicious to Newell was that Henry has also worked for Wilson Elser (the lobbyist giant where Kenneth Shapiro works), which reps several firms with ties to Silver and the Assembly, such as the Dolans (Henry says he didn’t do political work there). Newell is concerned that Henry might be a sort of spoiler, an unserious candidate designed to split the non-Silver vote. Through intermediaries, Newell has tried to coax Henry into dropping out of the race. But Henry says he’s in it to win. “This race isn’t about Paul Newell,” Henry says. “It’s about Sheldon Silver.”
“I go about my business as far as that’s concerned,” Silver says. “There’s nothing either one of the candidates really offers, it’s all about rhetoric they buy into. There is nothing really specific. Clearly they can’t criticize the schools I built downtown, they can’t criticize my health care, record on health care, record funding for education, they can’t criticize anything that I’ve done, in terms of holding feet to the fire of government, in terms of rebuilding downtown. So you get these … reform and those kinds of words, and that’s all they can talk about. And that’s it.”
Silver hasn’t been tested in two decades. But many of his supporters are gone, to Florida, to Long Island, to the grave. He hasn’t forgotten home, but home might’ve forgotten him. He knows he still has game. “It’s like school,” Silver says about his approach to the upcoming primary. “You study a little bit every day, and you don’t have to cram for the exam.” He’ll do what’s necessary, as he always has, but he doesn’t need to change. “I’m just me,” he says. “That’s it. It’s just me.”