The Corrupt Pol I Kinda Loved
Sheldon Silver is the last of his breed: Simultaneously repulsive and endearing, New York’s Assembly leader has never forgotten his NYC roots.
Plated before me was a sandwich of warm kosher bison meat on rye. Across the dining room, Shelly Silver was serving up some icy stares in my direction.
It was August 2008, and I trailed the Assembly Speaker to the only kosher restaurant in Denver. We were both there for the Democratic National Convention. The big story, of course, was Barack Obama’s Presidential nomination, but it coincided with some unfortunate, if familiar, scandal for Silver, for whom disrepute has long seemed to cling.
He was facing a rare competitive Democratic primary—and a woman with a horrendous story about the Speaker’s callousness was actively campaigning for his opponent. She was a former Assembly staffer, and she openly told the press that seven years earlier, a top Silver aide raped her. When she reported it to Silver, Silver did nothing by her account. No, not nothing; worse than nothing. Silver munched on pretzels as she described to him the abuse, she said, then he did nothing. (The aide would ultimately plead guilty to a reduced charge stemming from another rape accusation).
As for Denver in ’08, I had a cordial enough relationship with Silver to expect at least a “no comment.” But apparently it was too galling for me to question how he managed allegations of sexual assault in his own legislative chamber. Questions about challenges to his power also enraged him. He eluded me at every chance, prompting me to trail him to the deli, where he still didn’t answer my questions, although the bison sandwich was delicious.
Now, almost seven years later, Silver is finally arrested on corruption charges. But this potential comeuppance for Silver? It’s leaving a bitter taste in my mouth.
Silver is charged with steering state business for millions of dollars in kickbacks. If true, Albany is more rotten than I thought—and I’ve covered more criminal cases there than I can remember (although former Governor Eliot Spitzer is one I can’t shake from memory).
Silver should be presumed innocent; that said, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is not an indictment-mad prosecutor. (He’s gotten plenty of grief for what some say are treating Wall Street too gently).
Still, despite the egregiousness of these charges, there’s something simultaneously repulsive and endearing about Sheldon Silver. He represents a bygone time of New York City politics—men in fedoras, backroom deal-making, using taxpayer-funded perks to reward loyalty. Call it sleazy, call it charmingly authentic. You decide.
What is true is that Silver is New York City’s only true champion among the state’s legislative leaders. Governor Cuomo accentuates his Queens roots, but the Democrat arguably takes city voters for granted. (He wants to steer nearly half of a multi-billion dollar fund from legal settlements with financial firms into the New York State Thruway and the Tappan Zee Bridge). Cuomo plays to the suburbs (where he lives), and has a soft-spot for Buffalo, where he is pouring a billion dollars in taxpayer money to disputed benefit.
Silver oozes New York City. That, plus his fealty to unions and skepticism to charter schools, is why Mayor Bill de Blasio called the Speaker “a man of integrity” shortly after the feds cuffed Silver. Silver as “a man of integrity” doesn’t pass the laugh test, and de Blasio knows it.
De Blasio is rather sending a message to Assembly members from the City: I’m sticking with Silver, and so should you—at least until a budget deal (the deadline for the spending plan is April 1). The union-friendly, left-wing Working Families Party echoed: “Our justice system is based on the presumption of innocence.”
“They need a strong presence on that side of the negotiating table,” one longtime Albany insider told me, speaking of City Hall officials and the Working Families Party. There is no clear successor to Silver, so a skirmish for control “would generate into (a) battle for the speakership, and that would really divide the Assembly and create problems,” my source added.
One possibility if Assembly Democrats started wobbling: Cuomo could swoop in and arrange a coup. And his pick for Speaker is said to be the Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, who is from Rochester, or Assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem, who may lack Silver’s backbone in challenging Cuomo’s priorities.
Friday, there were rumblings of another coup attempt that would elevate another Assembly member from within the five boroughs, but that hasn’t materialized and observers don’t expect it will. Silver is returning to Albany Monday, and lawmakers are inclined to hear what he says behind closed doors.
Silver has experience weathering a coup attempt. After beating back a 2000 insurrection, he stripped those betraying him of all kinds of perks—and he would no doubt do what he can to retain power. Silver may be on bond, but he retains the tools gleaned from 20 years at the top. He no doubt remembers every peccadillo his members committed.
Plus, Silver still has moles sniffing out treason. Even as he appeared in federal court and walked the media gantlet Thursday, his chief of staff sat in on a private meeting among members of the Assembly processing the news, according to my NY1 colleague Zack Fink.
Finally, let me talk about the taboo—Silver’s religion—if only because so many of my fellow Jews have confided what I confess I share: embarrassment that a religious Jew is handcuffed. Corruption pervades Albany; I can’t think of a religious or ethnic group spared. Still, it stings when one of them looks like your uncle.
Lawmakers who are not white, or male, or neither, should make history; Silver is likely the last of an era, at least for now. These are the names of his predecessors: Stanley Steingut; Stanley Fink; Mel Miller; Saul Weprin. Southeastern Manhattan, roughly Silver’s base, lost more than a quarter of Jewish households between 2002 and 2011, according to a study from UJA-Federation of New York.
In 1994, after Silver was chosen Assembly Speaker, he took NY1 to Ratner’s on the Lower East Side so that we could do a profile of him. My family went there all the time when I was a kid; it was what my parents would call a “dairy” restaurant—no meat, but succulent blintzes and latkes flung by ornery waiters.
Ratner’s closed in 2002. Silver never left the neighborhood.