Shel Game

Illustration by Roberto Parada

In the annals of Albany weirdness and corruption, the Vito Lopez scandal is ugly and infuriating but not terribly interesting: A powerful, sleazy state assemblyman is censured over accusations that he groped or sexually harassed multiple female staffers. To be clear: Lopez’s alleged actions, which he denies, are abhorrent, and any harm done to the women involved is more important than anything else in this tawdry episode. But this is a town that’s fairly recently endured the resignation of a hooker-happy governor, the tumultuous reign of New York’s first blind governor, and—perhaps most shockingly—the ascension of a governor who knows what he’s doing. Yet Vitogate could turn out to be as significant to the state’s political culture as any of those earthquakes. There has been one consistently formidable force in state politics before, during, and after all the upheavals: The speaker of the State Assembly, Sheldon Silver. The 68-year-old has lost more than a few steps from his game in recent years, but if the Lopez debacle finally topples Silver, it would end state political life as we know it. Which sounds like it would be good news for Governor Andrew Cuomo—but this being Albany, things are never quite so simple.

The headlines have made it look slimy, or just plain dumb. But to some state-government insiders, Silver’s quiet authorization of a $103,000 payment to two of Lopez’s accusers was merely in keeping with the fundamental operating principle that’s allowed the speaker—and the current Republican Senate majority leader, Dean Skelos—to dominate the power structure. “Most members get up in the morning and have only one ask to God, which is, ‘Never let me lose this job,’ ” a former legislator says. “So individual members give up all their power to the leaders, in return for which they’re guaranteed that the leaders will do everything they can to help the members keep their seats and give them money to dole out. If it looks like Shelly is throwing members under the bus, it encourages people to think maybe he shouldn’t be the leader.”

That raw loyalty bargain has worked brilliantly for Silver. It is nearly impossible to overstate the depth and reach of his power in Albany for much of the past two decades. He was first elected by a district on the Lower East Side in 1976, rose to speaker of the Assembly in 1994, and has methodically consolidated his control of that half of the State Legislature. Silver knows every arcane bill-­writing trick in the book and is a tenacious and often maddeningly opaque negotiator; his hangdog manner and ponderous bass voice disguise a sharp tactical mind. He directs millions in state funding and has nurtured a generation of well-connected operatives; his former aides are now the state’s top lobbyists and political strategists. There were years—from late-period George Pataki through the collapse of Eliot Spitzer and the fumblings of David Paterson—where Silver and his Senate Republican counterpart, Joe Bruno, basically ran state government.

Silver has fought off occasional ­challenges—an attempted leadership coup in 2000, the carping of the Post about his mysterious job at a personal-injury law firm. This time, though, Silver is in a different kind of danger. Inside the Assembly he’s weaker than he’s been in a decade: More than a third of the Democrats in Silver’s caucus have been elected since 2006, and belong to a younger generation less beholden to him personally and professionally. “A lot of members are looking for a reset,” one current Assembly Democrat says. “Shelly has done a lot of harm to the institution and a lot of harm to the members.” Silver’s other, perhaps larger problem is that he’s bungled the current crisis. Good digging by Times reporters has kept the story alive, but Silver has helped by dribbling out damaging details and allowing himself to become a punching bag for Gloria Allred, the lawyer representing some of Lopez’s accusers.

Silver’s defenders advance a relatively benign and rational explanation for his actions in furtively approving the $103,000 settlement: that the complainant asked for confidentiality. They’re confident Silver will endure the current unpleasantness, and they dismiss the notion that he had any interest in helping Lopez. “The premise that Shelly Silver put himself on the line for Vito Lopez is laughable,” an Albany insider says. “Shelly really dislikes Vito. He wanted to get rid of Vito! Shelly’s basic operating principle is, ‘What’s in Shelly’s interest?’ ”

On that point, at least, Silver’s sympathizers and detractors agree. “Shelly only cares about Shelly,” a current Assembly member says. “There’s no agenda anymore except being reactive to protect himself after eighteen, nineteen years. So when Vito is useful, Vito is useful. When Vito is not useful anymore, we discard Vito. Shelly has put up with Vito because he needed him, but since the coup in 2000, Shelly has tried to remove every other Assembly member who had an independent power base or who could ever challenge him for ­speaker—Richard Brodsky, Mark Weprin, Al Vann, they’re all gone. The last person remaining was Vito.” And Lopez had lately become a greater irritant to Silver, even before the harassment allegations surfaced. Lopez, as chairman of the Assembly housing committee, helped steer millions to groups run by friends and associates, including his longtime girlfriend, sparking investigations; this spring, in his role as Brooklyn Democratic Party boss, Lopez sponsored a nasty primary challenge to incumbent Brooklyn congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, an ally of Silver’s. The intramural feud angered the speaker. He seems to have given Lopez one last chance in June, when the first sexual-harassment complaints arrived and were settled. When more women lodged graphic accusations not long after, Silver’s patience—or Lopez’s usefulness—appears to have been exhausted, with the new complaint being referred to the legislative ethics committee. “Three weeks between a complaint and a final resolution?” the current Assembly ­member—who is no fan of Lopez’s—says in disbelief, and in suspicion that the outcome was preordained by Silver. “I’ve never seen the Assembly move so quickly.”

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.


Shel Game