Albany – He is the most powerful man in New York, kept there not by the voters but by his own colleagues. From taxes to education to appointments to pork-barrel funding, Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver is the state’s undisputed power-broker — now more than ever given the increasingly tenuous hold Gov. Paterson has on his accidental office.
Should Paterson resign, it would be Silver’s hand-picked choice for lieutenant governor, longtime friend Dick Ravitch — whose controversial appointment was ruled constitutional by a 4-3 vote decided by another longtime Silver friend and appointee, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman — who would take office.
What any of this means public-policy-wise is — as always where Shelly Silver is concerned — unclear. What is clear, according to most everyone who spoke to The Post, is that Shelly Silver will continue to enact whatever policies necessary to maintain his untrammeled, unilateral control.
“This is a guy that doesn’t consider any legislation so essential that it’s not worth bargaining for,” says Steven Malanga, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “He doesn’t seem to have anything that he cherishes.”
“He is one of the wiliest, smartest people in politics,” says one Democratic strategist who’s known Silver for more than 30 years. “He knows the levers of power.”
“He has no ideology,” adds a senior Albany pol who served with Silver in the Assembly. “I don’t think he really feels strongly about anything. He loves the fight — he loved fighting with [Gov. George] Pataki. It’s about power, and I think he has total power. I can’t imagine anyone challenging him.”
In 2008, Silver handily won his first primary challenge in over 20 years, defeating two young, little-known newcomers. In the Assembly, he has built such an overwhelming Democratic majority that it determines joint resolutions, and his house has the dubious honor of seeming well-run in the wake of the state Senate’s embarrassing collapse last summer.
“Politics being a greasy pole in New York, Shelly rises to the top, almost by default,” says Nelson Denis, a former assemblyman who was part of a failed 2000 coup against the speaker. “It’s the upside-down world of Albany — by that measure, he emerges as a statesman.”
SILVER, a lawyer, was first elected to the Assembly from the Lower East Side in 1976, and became speaker in 1994, after then-Speaker Saul Weprin, who was something of a mentor to Silver, died after a stroke. At one time, he held aspirations for higher office, but, say those who know him, he is too pragmatic to ever make a run: He knows his lack of star power and his religion (he’s an Orthodox Jew) may prove problematic. And, as one colleague puts it, why bother? “He is the most powerful person in the state and everyone knows it.”
That power has been accrued through a deep knowledge of public policy; the ability to read people so well that he can often predict what they will do next; and the pleasure he takes in picking a problem apart from multiple angles. Like the consummate poker player he is, Silver, in conversation and debate, is deeply inscrutable. He is also a master at serving two constituencies: the voters who keep him in the Assembly, and the conference — his fellow Democrats, whose needs are as varied as their districts — who keep him in his seat of power. It makes for interesting stances on the issues.
In 1999, for example, Silver killed the commuter tax (which he then supported in 2008). “The only mistake I’ve seen Shelly make is repealing the commuter tax,” says one old Albany hand. “I don’t know what the hell he got for that. I think he just wanted to stick it to [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani.”
In 2008, he killed Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed congestion pricing plan, which would have benefited his Lower East Side constituency but would’ve killed the upstaters and suburbanites in his own conference.
In 2006, after two cops were killed in the line of duty the year prior, Silver reversed his stance on tougher gun-control laws (favored by the city but opposed by upstate voters), but only after much public pressure and a series of scathing op-eds. The year before that, he effectively killed Bloomberg’s proposed West Side Stadium, which was objected to by the Dolan family, owners of Cablevision and Madison Square Garden. They are also big Silver contributors. Most recently, Silver torpedoed New York’s chances of winning $700 million in federal funding for schools by undermining the city’s successful charter school system, which is loathed by the United Federation of Teachers — another Silver ally.
“Charter schools — that’s typical Shelly,” says a former colleague and self-described “loyalist.” “He put in a bill that was so bad — he put the Board of Regents in control, which he’s in control of — and it was done with a wink and a nod to the teachers, who he’s very close with.”
Yet Silver has allowed — there’s really no other word for it — the mayor to retain control of the city school system, a request he denied to previous occupants of that office.
“The speaker and I have had a few well-publicized differences over the years,” Bloomberg told The Post, “but he’s been a beacon of stability and a stalwart for causes he champions in a Capitol that all too often lacks both. And, as I know from the many issues we’ve worked on in partnership, there’s no one you’d rather have on your side.”
There’s also no one you’d rather not have as an enemy. If you happen to be mayor or governor, you probably don’t want Shelly Silver around at all. But no one really has a choice. “If someone was to say, ‘Shelly is a problem,’” says one pol who also served in the Assembly, “they’d be making a mistake.”
Eliot Spitzer, according to sources who spoke with The Post for this piece, seriously thought about trying to remove Silver, but could not figure out how to do it. “Eliot tried raw power,” says the Dem strategist, “and was completely demolished.”
“At first, 16 years ago, it was Gov. Pataki and Joe Bruno vs. Shelly,” says this assemblyman. “Slowly, it became Bruno and Shelly against Pataki.” Shelly also started off wanting to work with Paterson. But “when he realized, ‘This is not a reliable person,’ he quickly got off.”
Silver wasn’t always so nimble. It wasn’t until he was nearly “dethroned” — as one conspirator tellingly puts it — by an attempted coup in 2000 that he realized he needed to adjust.
“Shelly got very insulated,” says a former coup member. “On the Paterson scale of 1 to 10, Paterson being a 10, Shelly was an 8.” Among the complaints: Silver was completely unavailable, having members go through his office to make appointments. He held press conferences alone, taking sole credit for every bill or measure introduced. He never sat in conference. “He’d come in and say, ‘Hello, this is what’s happening. I gotta go call the governor, Mike Bragman’s gonna run the conference.’ ”
Democratic Majority Leader Mike Bragman wound up leading the coup, which, due mainly to poor timing, failed. Bragman was out by the end of his term, and Silver had one of those near-death transformations — not ideologically, but managerially. Now, all members of the Assembly have Silver’s direct cell number. Conferences don’t happen without him. He announces birthdays on the floor. For a man who is routinely described as utterly void of charisma, he is trying.
“My opinion of him has changed over time,” says a former member of the coup. “He has become a great leader. He’s able to keep together a very contentious conference. The arrogance of power that some of us saw . . . I think he certainly views [the conference as his constituency] now.”
‘YOU can’t hold him responsible for the mess in Albany,” says an ex-assemblyman. “As much as he’s a target, he’s been a really good leader. The power he has is because of his competence.”
“Other than tort reform” — Silver is a trial lawyer, “of counsel” at the firm Weitz & Luxenberg — “I remember him being pretty consensual to his members,” says former Assemblyman Nelson Denis. “What he’s been noted for is not unique to him.”
Silver doesn’t seem to think so, either. In a question-and-answer session with The Post, he was as described: soft-spoken and loath to divulge, really, anything.
Should the governor resign?
I have indicated over and over again: He has to address the allegations publicly. We have to do a budget in the next four weeks.
What is the agenda?
Right now, there’s a legislation charged with the responsibility of bringing about a budget in the midst of a very serious crisis. The No. 1 priority is dealing with the fiscal emergency in this state.
What cuts can New Yorkers expect?
￼ With a $9 billion deficit, across-the-board cuts. Very little can be sacred.
Who is your pick for the next governor?
I have no pick. I will support the Democratic candidate. It appears it will be Andrew Cuomo, a friend and constituent of mine.
Should AEG be disqualified from the racino bid?
I called for an investigation. Until that, nothing should happen.
Should Ravitch be in on the budget negotiations?
I think the governor picked Ravitch to use his experience to be one of the tools that he uses in bringing about the budget.
There are many people who say you picked Ravitch.
I had nothing to do with the selection of Richard Ravitch. I said [that pick] wasn’t consistent with the constitution.
Your appointee to the Court of Appeals, your friend Jonathan Lippman, was the one who ruled it constitutional — which some also believe was your doing.
I would beg to differ. Yes, I certainly supported his appointment, but I will tell you there were hundreds of people who said that he was the right choice.
What do you think of the criticism that you have too much control?
Well, I haven’t thought much about it.
This is a question I don’t believe you’ve ever answered: How much do you make at your law firm?
I disclose that fully on my ethics form. [Silver’s earnings, however, are not part of public record.] I will continue to disclose it on my ethics form.
So you won’t answer the question?
I just gave you a five-minute answer.
“Shelly the trial lawyer and Shelly the speaker are the same person,” says the Manhattan Institute’s Siegel. “Trial lawyers always make their money not by expanding the pie, but by extraction. He’s not interested in reform.”
In Silver’s defense, almost no one else in Albany is, either. While a huge part of the problem is the system itself — “the progressively gerrymandered New York state Assembly and Senate,” as Malanga puts it — Silver, along with his colleagues, is in a position to do something about that. But that would require the formation, by the Legislature, of an independent commission, or a constitutional convention. For the former, Silver and his colleagues would have create the conditions that would limit and regulate their power.
There is, however, a variable in the offing: The likely run and election of Andrew Cuomo, that great reformer and good friend of Shelly Silver, in the very near future.
“When Cuomo gets in, as is expected, there will be challenges,” says the veteran Dem strategist. “There will be pressure to change Albany, but changing Albany means Shelly’s in the center of things. The question is how Andrew goes about dealing with Shelly. If he tries raw power, it’s a bad game.”