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Shel Game

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Last week Lopez was still publicly proclaiming his innocence and clinging to his Assembly seat; he’s surrendered his ­housing-committee chairmanship and will relinquish his role as Brooklyn party boss. But it’s Silver’s fate that has the capital riveted. “The governor now sees blood in the water,” an Albany Democrat says, “and he’s coming for Shelly.”

The conventional wisdom is that Andrew Cuomo wants to control everything. And that’s not wrong. Yet the governor’s initial reaction to the Lopez scandal was chagrin—at the nature of the allegations, but also at the damage to Albany’s ­improving reputation. Cuomo has invested a great deal of energy and salesmanship in trying to restore a feeling of pride within the capital and an image of state-­government credibility with the public. This Lopez mess—combined with the recent indictment of Democratic state senator Shirley Huntley on charges of conspiring to steal taxpayer money intended for an educational program—revived talk of Albany as a cesspool. That the alleged misbehavior was in the legislature didn’t matter much—it tars everyone in state government.

It wasn’t long, though, before the governor’s strategic instincts kicked in. His first public comments about the Lopez and Huntley problems included a mention that all this turmoil would make legislative pay raises an even tougher lift this fall. Cuomo was setting the table. “Everyone assumed we were going back for a special session in November to do a pay raise,” a Democratic state legislator says. “The one thing Shelly knows he needs to do is deliver a pay raise, and this gives ­Andrew a new weapon. It’s going to be interesting to see what the governor wants to extract for the pay raise.”

Cuomo also declared he’d like to see the Lopez accusations investigated by the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which could keep the chatter going for months and raise the prospect of uncomfortable testimony by Silver. That path isn’t without risk for Cuomo, too: The ethics committee will no doubt do its job independently and responsibly, but jcope’s close ties to the governor guarantee that its work will be interpreted as falling in line with the governor’s desires. If the facts get worse, and Silver is implicated in a real cover-up, that won’t matter.

“In Andrew’s mind, chaos is always good for him,” an Albany veteran says. Certainly it provides Cuomo with some new openings, but the governor has worked very efficiently with Silver and Skelos atop the Assembly and State Senate. He’s also savvy enough to know that a stable and functional Albany is good for everyone, and that a void in the Assembly creates an unpredictable new dynamic. The best outcome, for Cuomo, is probably that Silver survives—further weakened, but grateful to make it into a third decade as speaker. Silver and Lopez have the most to fear from this scandal. But it may also become a fascinating test of how deftly Andrew Cuomo deals with being handed even more power.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.


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