Shelly’s Last Legs
That’s the name of my parlor game as I peruse newspapers, political websites and TV news broadcasts looking for a glimpse of embattled Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
As I prepared this column, it suddenly occurred to me that Silver was noticeably absent from the Democratic Party unity news conference on behalf of mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio. The event was somewhat hosted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the titular head of the state party, and yet Speaker Silver, the de facto leader of the city’s Democrats for many years, was nowhere to be found.
Jewish high holidays were not the reason for his absence. Like a wounded lion, Shelly has retreated into his den to lick his wounds.
Silver has suffered a series of blows, though until recently none of the injuries seemed grievous enough to be fatal.
Beginning in early spring, Silver’s speakership and reputation were damaged by revelations stemming from his mishandling of sexual harassment claims made against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez. A little over one month ago, the cover-up of two sexual harassment claims against Manhattan Assemblyman Micah Kellner exacerbated the situation and led to the dismissal of a senior Assembly lawyer.
Last May Siena polling showed Silver’s favorable/unfavorable numbers at 23/34 percent. By June they had sunk to 20/43. The 43 percent unfavorable rating was the worst recorded by the Speaker in over eight years.
But of course, public polls do not determine the viability of an Assembly Speaker.
However, the recent revelations that forced the resignation of William Rapfogel— a close friend and confidant of Silver’s and husband of his chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel— as president of the venerable Met Council on Jewish Poverty are real cause for the Speaker to be concerned about the prospects of continuing his near 20-year reign in Albany. Allegations of kickbacks, illegal campaign contributions and the trading of housing development tax credits have the potential to take down the House of Silver.
The recently empaneled Moreland Commission is reportedly investigating the nexus of campaign donations, legislation, tax credits and legislators’ outside income.
On the day of the Thompson–de Blasio unity news conference, The New York Times reported that Rapfogel may have personally profited from the insurance kickback scheme. The drip, drip of more Rapfogel stories undermines the Speaker’s continuing viability.
Nonetheless, there has been little pressure on Shelly from his members—at least in public—for him to step down as Speaker. Some of them dismiss the significance of the case against Rapfogel because there is no indication of a direct connection of impropriety to Shelly (or even Judy).
Earlier in the year the general consensus was that Silver’s departure would weaken the Assembly. Today, however, only the staunchest of Silver loyalists cling to that belief. Meanwhile, other members are quietly vetting potential successors.
Needless to say, deposing a sitting Speaker midterm is a Herculean feat. Memory of the Bragman coup still haunts members and makes them wary of engaging in any seditious activities.
But politics being a survivors’ game, the future does not bode well for Speaker Silver’s longevity.
I suspect that members, particularly the so-called “marginals,” who hail from competitive suburban and upstate districts, are not looking forward to campaigning in 2014 with the Silver albatross hanging from their necks.
The Democratic Conference is not without capable, seasoned veteran legislators who could step into the breach should Silver’s speakership be further imperiled by another dropped shoe.
I’d imagine New York City members want to retain control of the speakership—and given that dynamic, the large Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus would have a significant say in that selection. After years of being loyal backbenchers, I see no reason why the caucus’ members would not tap one of their own as a contender.
Old paradigms have been displaced. For 31 months the state had a black chief executive. Two of the state’s biggest upstate cities will have black mayors in 2014. Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, an Indian-American, was recently crowned Miss America. There’s no reason to believe that the speakership should be exempt from the march of demographic change.
Silver, the Assembly lion who protected his pride from a succession of hostile governors intent on declawing the Legislature, is now in the crosshairs of the media, prosecutors and ambitious members. When he finally emerges from his den, he may face a line of spears.
The inevitable outcome may involve Silver voluntarily stepping aside in order to protect his beloved “People’s House” from the wrecking ball of ruinous investigations.
Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin (@ SquarePeg_Dem on Twitter) represented the Bronx for eight years.