By Ed SullivanThe Daily News says there are rumors gathering of a possible coup against State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as a result of his handling of the Vito Lopez sexual harassment affair. The story brought back memories for me. With all the sarcasm I can muster, I can only say: “Lots o’ luck.”
These rumors are without an in-house monger—and, like a ship without a sail or a car without a motor, they’re going nowhere. If nobody in the Assembly is going to step up to take credit for them—well, you can’t beat somebody with nobody.
And the speaker of the Assembly is somebody. He holds tremendous power within his house. It is the members of the Assembly, after all, with whom he exchanges power. They vote for him to be speaker. He appoints them to be committee chairs, deputy speaker, assistant deputy speaker, et cetera, et cetera—most of whom have lulus, salary bonuses. He signs the employment papers for all Assembly staff. Lesser perks, choice offices and parking spaces all go through his office, as do permits to travel on state business.
Any committee chair or deputy assistant with lulus or other perks would put all that at risk by putting his or her name on a coup attempt.
Whether it’s good public policy for the speaker to wield such power can be discussed at another time, perhaps. But there is no question that Shelly Silver has that power.
I know a bit about this subject firsthand. As a member of the Assembly, I was a part of the coup attempt against Silver back in May of 2000.
Michael Bragman, the majority leader of the Assembly at the time, had been simmering under the power of Shelly Silver—who, as speaker, had appointed him to his post. Bragman felt—and at that time I agreed—that Shelly had removed himself from contact with the Democratic Assembly members.
So when Mike Bragman asked me if I would join him in an attempt to change the leadership, I said, “Yes.”
But that was before Shelly heard about the coup and started to organize his defense. Shelly knew the wishes and fears of each member of the Democratic conference, because at one time or another we had each told him about them. That information was stored in his head.
Using this knowledge, Shelly asked loyal colleagues, often chairs themselves, to convince the rebels that we were making a mistake. Community leaders from the rebel members’ home districts were pressed to call and say, “Are you out of your mind?”
Shelly’s efforts started on a Wednesday. I caved on Friday, along with others. The next Monday a procedural vote was called as a test. Shelly won easily. Bragman got only 20 Democratic votes out of 98.
Bragman was stripped of his positions and perks, and soon after left the Assembly, his political career over. Those rebels who had held out until the Monday vote were punished briefly, but gradually welcomed back into the fold. Smart.
Speaker Silver might have said, “An attack that doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” His power in the Assembly was now unquestioned. Those who had groused before became more quietly accepting.
Shelly, to his credit, took a lesson from the coup attempt. He started discussing issues more openly with the members. He began attending the conference meetings, which became more genuine forums for legislative ideas. The post-coup Democratic conference was more democratic than the pre-coup conference. So the purposes of the failed coup were somewhat achieved even though the speaker remained in power and the rebel leader was exiled.
The grievances that led to the coup in 2000 were real, and dealt with the essential functioning of the Assembly as a democratic body. But the rumors that are currently afoot stem from a procedural mistake that the speaker has already acknowledged and has promised to correct.
Any attempt at a coup now in 2012 would be seen, and should be seen, as opportunistically using a mistake as an excuse for taking power away from Shelly Silver.
Fizzle would be too strong a word to describe its certain fate.
Ed Sullivan represented the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the Assembly from 1977 to 2002.