The Obstructionist

Photo: Brian Finke

Shelly Silver is stuck in traffic. He’s got the windows up, the air conditioning on. We were cruising from the old part of his district—the Lower East Side—to the newish part—Battery Park City—and are now idling in his pale-green, state-owned Chrysler 300 on the West Side Highway. There’s a van with rust on the rims and salsa blaring next to us, and Silver is shifting in the driver’s seat, explaining what really happened to Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing plan, which, like so many of the mayor’s ideas, was quashed in his Assembly chamber. He looks out the windshield from underneath his floppy-brimmed fedora, which is not quite black but dark red. His glasses are smudged. His voice is low and deep, slow and sober.

He recalls a conversation he had with Robert Rubin—the former Treasury secretary, current Citigroup director, and friend of the billionaire mayor’s. Rubin, like us, was also stuck in traffic and decided to give Silver a call to talk up the proposal. Silver says, “Let me ask you something, Bob. Are you in one of those limo-type cars?” He was. “You know under the mayor’s plan your car doesn’t pay to be congesting, it’s only the little guy. He exempted the cabs, he’s exempted the limos. I mean, I look at it sometimes and I say, Yeah, he doesn’t care about paying $8. What does it mean to him? Just get the riffraff off the streets, you know, just get the poor people off the streets so they can’t use them … ”

Silver’s handling of congestion pricing was the latest example of his secretive way of wielding power. He has a remarkable ability to seem to hold two contradictory positions at the same time. Officially, he was in favor of it, because, he says, it would help his district, where we’re currently stuck in traffic. But philosophically, he was against it. A personal-injury lawyer by trade, he saw it as just one more overly ambitious big idea from the uptown technocrats—the same people who tried to give the city follies like the West Side stadium, which he also stopped. Plus he was feeling rushed; the mayor wanted to make this momentous change without sufficient time for him to think things through.

Over three decades in Albany, which is consistently cited by good-government groups as one of the most dysfunctional state governments in the country, Silver has become the master of the process. With all the tumult of the last couple of years—Joe Bruno, the leader of the State Senate, under federal investigation; George Pataki, an uninspired Republican governor, replaced by Eliot Spitzer, imperious and quickly self-immolating, leaving David Paterson in his place—Silver has been a constant. Perhaps a bit too constant. For many, even in his party, he’s the embodiment of the status quo, too engaged in the maintenance of his own power. Which brings us back to congestion pricing. Silver’s job is to keep his assemblymen happy and increase his majority—currently 106 of 150 seats are filled by Democrats—and many of them worried they’d be hurt by congestion pricing.

Silver took a beating in the press after the scheme died, though. Bloomberg said, “It takes a special kind of cowardice” for Silver to not have his members vote on the plan, a sentiment echoed by the Times’ editorial board, which declared that Silver, once again, “failed to put New Yorkers’ needs before his personal agenda. That makes him unworthy of his office.”

Silver says he is unfazed. “I have broad shoulders,” he says. “I have thick skin.” He thinks Bloomberg just can’t handle rejection. “I’m probably the only person in life who told him no that he didn’t take over, that he didn’t buy …” And the Times’ editorial board is stuck in “their ivory tower.” He’s had it with the Times. “I stopped meeting with their editorial board.” He rarely meets with the press at all. “The press has an agenda,” he says. He’s not a showboat; he’s an obscurantist, an endgame player. This is how he’s survived. But the State Assembly holds elections every two years, and for the first time in 22 years, he has primary opponents. Both were born in 1974, the year Silver first ran for office. One’s a progressive community activist and Obama delegate who happened to become Facebook friends with Bloomberg’s political brain, Kevin Sheekey, on the very day congestion pricing died. The other is a corporate lawyer who’s worked for a firm that’s close to political allies of Silver’s over the years, prompting rumors that he might be a ringer designed to split the vote and return Silver to Albany. Silver dismisses such talk. “I don’t know either one, never heard of either one; I don’t really know people who know either one, as well,” he says. Besides, “If I were supporting somebody, they’d say nicer things about me than either one of these guys are saying.”

Sheldon Silver out and about on the Lower East Side. Photo: Brian Finke

But petitioning for the primary starts this week, and Silver is clearly taking it seriously. He’s hired a new consulting firm. He is appearing in public more often. He is polling. He will knock on doors. He is talking about himself in the third person. “Sheldon Silver will do what he has to in order to get reelected,” he says.

While we’re stuck in traffic, I notice that Silver is wearing two watches: the gold watch on the right wrist was a gift from his wife, Rosa, a schoolteacher, and he’s worn this watch for the last fifteen years. But it stopped working, and a new battery didn’t seem to get it going again. So Silver’s wearing another watch on his left wrist, the backup, checking them against each other, hoping that the old standby works once more. “If there’s anything Shelly does,” one of his former aides told me, “he never leaves anything to chance.”

Silver is a man of habit and caution and quirks. He’s 64 years old, but he looks a bit older. He abstains from alcohol and caffeine. (“Steady,” he says, offering a still hand, proudly.) His old-fashioned suits are custom made and contain no linen or wool. (“A kosher suit,” his Brooklyn tailor explains.) He gets his hair cut for $14 at Astor Place Haircutters. He likes his hot dogs well done. He does not eat chicken. (“No birds.”) He’s the opposite of Paterson, known for his reporter-friendliness and self-deprecating, ready-with-a-quip style.

“I don’t make a lot of noise,” Silver says.

His father was the same way. He ran wholesale hardware stores around the city. Headquarters was on Ludlow Street, just below Broome. Silver was the youngest of four children. His family lived on the first floor at 235 Henry, a tenement, and his grandparents lived upstairs. “We moved out of here by my 5th birthday,” he says. “Moved to Hillman.”

The Sidney Hillman houses, named after the garment-union leader, are among the brick co-op behemoths that dominate the eastern end of Grand Street; they were designed to supplant the tenements with modern fixtures, light, and air. They were affordable too, only $16 a month per room. Silver’s dad put all the kids’ diplomas up on the living-room wall. “Whenever we had a guest, he would show them the wall and say, ‘Now how do you like my $100,000 wallpaper?’”

Grand Street was a universe unto itself. “To be an East Side boy like Shelly, you have to understand, was a very insular experience,” says Heshey Jacob, a longtime friend. But Silver was an ambitious kid. “He’d always say that he wanted to be president of the United States, even at 10, 11 years old,” says Lenny Greher, another friend. “If he wasn’t an Orthodox Jew, who knows? Maybe it could have happened.”

“My father taught us the value of a dollar,” Silver says, and the rules of success. “Never negotiate against yourself.” And: “You have to be able to walk away.” There are tricks, too. Like reading body language. Like controlling the tone and volume of your voice. Sometimes, in mid-conversation, Silver will dial down to an ultralow garble. You have to lean in close, one ear first, get a whiff of his Brut cologne, and listen hard to hear him. “The strategy,” another of his former aides says, “is to give himself time to smell out the landscape.” In other words, stall. And hide. The whispery mumbles offer Silver “a chance to not share his thought process.” This creates confusion, and confusion is good. It gives Silver the chance to reassess what he said, the landscape in which he said it, and, should he choose, to say something else. “Some people call it playing games or telling you half of the story,” the former aide says. “Really, all the low talk, it’s just a way to buy time, so he can figure out the best possible deal.”

The line he likes to use the most? “I hear ya.” I hear ya means he sympathizes. I hear ya means he hears ya. I hear ya means nothing at all.

“It’s part of negotiations,” he says. “What can I tell you?”

As a kid, Silver was good at basketball. “My job was controlling the ball. I always controlled the ball,” he says. Silver’s dad wanted him to be a judge, and he went to Yeshiva University and Brooklyn Law. Then, as now, the judgeships were controlled by the political clubs, many of which grew out of Tammany Hall. Silver joined a reform club and started clerking. In 1974, Silver decided to run for City Council. “I realized, or people told me, that I would be a good spokesman for the community,” he says. He lost by 95 votes. But the vote tallies showed him way ahead along Grand Street. Silver deduced that meant that he’d have an easier time with the local State Assembly seat, which was centered on the co-ops. He ran, and won. “I figured I’d spend a few years in public service, then become a judge,” he says.

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.”

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.”

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.)

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.”

The Men Who Would Be Shelly

They both say it’s time for change. The Democratic-primary upstarts challenging the guy who runs the old neighborhood.

Photo: Courtesy of Friends of Paul Newell


L.E.S. Cred: Lived with roommates in Chinatown for the last ten years; was a Yiddish archivist at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research; speaks fluent Spanish.
Political Coming Of Age: Worked for Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign and is a delegate for Barack Obama. Spent the last seven years running a nonprofit called the Ubuntu Education Fund, which fosters education and AIDS outreach in South Africa.
Also: Buys his suits on eBay.
When He Decided To Run:In 2004, Newell says he was frustrated by Silver’s grip on the Assembly and was surprised there was no opponent to vote for on Primary Day. BlogPAC, a national consortium of progressive bloggers, supports him.
Strategy: Appeal to the reform-minded post-ethnics who now populate the neighborhood. Expects the blogosphere youth turning out for Obama to come out for him.
Conspiracy Theory: Bloomberg allies fund him.

Photo: Bob Scofield/Courtesy of People for Luke Henry


L.E.S. Cred: After living in the West Village, he moved back into the district last September. His wife’s pregnant and they found a bigger apartment.
Political Coming Of Age: He worked for Geraldine Ferraro’s Senate campaign in 1998; worked at Skadden, Arps; graduated from Fordham; and has worked for five corporate firms in as many years, including Wilson Elser, which reps several clients with ties to Silver and the Assembly. Says his purpose for running is to reform Albany.
Also: Plans to compete in the bike marathon two days before the primary.
When He Decided To Run: “Sometime last year,” he says.
Strategy: Thinks the voters want a more open and transparent government and will vote for him to overturn the too-comfortable Albany status quo.
Conspiracy Theory: The timing of his move into the district is suspicious to Newell.

The Obstructionist