ALBANY—After three years of mostly quiet cooperation with Andrew Cuomo, Sheldon Silver is set to re-emerge as a forceful liberal counterweight to the administration.
The Assembly speaker, unlike Cuomo, is supportive of Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's plan to expand pre-K funding with a tax on the rich. And as Cuomo plans to run for re-election on a platform reducing taxes, Silver is likely to oppose any reduction in revenue after years of flat budgeting have lowered the quality of public services.
"We're natural partners," the speaker said Monday as he introduced de Blasio to a private holiday luncheon of his Democratic colleagues, according to an attendee. "We're all very happy that he won, and we're excited about him talking during his campaign about the progressive ideals we've long espoused.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, de Blasio happily proclaimed a "clear vote of confidence" that would "help us make this a reality."
That Silver, 69, is in a position to do any of this is a testament to his extraordinary survival skills.
Despite a year of sexual harassment scandals within his conference, money laundering charges against a close ally and more questions about his $350,000 salary from a major plaintiffs firm, there's no sign Silver is heading anywhere. Instead of open sniping and a rival in the wings, there is forgiveness and praise for a honed, more responsive leadership style that his colleagues say allows the relatively inscrutable speaker to maintain his position atop a 103-person conference.
“I think there continues to be broad support," said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, who took office in 1991, two years before Silver became speaker. "I believe the speaker will not only continue to be the speaker, but will continue to be the strong speaker
“As a legislative body we went through a tough period of time because of the actions of a few individuals. Unfortunately it's tarnished the image of the Legislature. But I'm hoping those days are behind us and we can move on and not allow those things to be distractions.”
Rather than any question of how much longer he can hang on--a question which, as recently as this April, Fred Dicker was raising in print--the test for Silver is how effectively he'll be able to advocate for the liberal priorities of his members with Cuomo campaigning as a centrist, and the State Senate in the hands of coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats.
Apart from taxes, Silver is likely to differ from Cuomo on tuition support for undocumented immigrants and the question of a further decriminalization of the state's marijuana laws. The Assembly's Democratic conference is far to the left of Cuomo, and its members are looking to Silver to deliver in the face of a tepid governor and an obstructing Senate, still in the hands of a GOP-dominated coalition.
“Albany, collectively has talked the talk. Now it's time for us to walk the walk and deliver for our communities," said Assemblyman Karim Camara, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the powerful Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian caucus.
And of course, there will also be more attacks, by enemies armed and emboldened by the recent scandals.
“There's always questions of how much of this can he handle, how much of the pressure, how much of the negative stuff," said Jerry Kremer, a lobbyist from Long Island who chaired the chamber's Ways & Means Committee. "He could stay on for another six years or eight years, or he might decide a year from now he'll serve one more term and then leave. He's getting older, he's not losing his power, but how much can you tolerate of sniping on a daily basis?”
The looming fights will show how much damage the latest attack volleys have done. Several members of the chamber expressed reservations about Silver's effectiveness if he's forced to spend more time fending off attacks than arguing his case.
Assemblyman Danny O'Donnell, an Upper West Side Democrat, said “we won't know if the slings and arrows have been effective until the budget process.”
His downtown colleague, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, agreed.
Silver declined to be interviewed, but said through a spokesman that he has no plans to hang up his hat. In a carefully worded statement, the spokesman emphasized his past work with Cuomo and his longstanding commitment to pre-Kindergarten, which de Blasio hopes to expand by raising taxes on the rich.
“During the Pataki years, the speaker and Assembly Democrats worked every day to prevent bad things from happening to good people. In contrast, we have worked closely with Governor Cuomo to craft fiscally responsible budgets while at the same time ensuring vital safety net services to those who need them most,” said spokesman Mike Whyland. “We've also worked to strengthen rent laws, championed a historic minimum wage increase, and passed some of the toughest gun laws in the country. He has had a great working relationship with Governor Cuomo and he looks forward to working with Mayor de Blasio as well as other government leaders throughout the state in the coming years.”
De Blasio's plan might be challenging. While a poll last week showed 63 percent of New York City residents support a tax increase, any politician knows that it's a tall order in an election year. Cuomo has said he wants to find other funding streams, but de Blasio will face pressure from a core of left-leaning unions who propelled him to office.
In interviews, several of Silver's own members seemed less than wholehearted in their desire to go along.
“I think when we talk about Bill de Blasio's idea to raise taxes on the wealthy to invest in Pre-K, it's one option. I think one thing we need to do is take a hard look at what we do with Pre-K — what is working, what is not working — and take it from there,” said Democratic Assemblyman Matt Titone, who represents norther Staten Island. “I don't think just throwing more money at the same road map is effective at this point.”
But Whyland said Silver was on board, and that “the challenge will be to convince others and Speaker Silver will work with Mayor de Blasio to make sure this message is heard loud and clear in Albany.”
De Blasio made his case during Monday's luncheon, and as with other recent issues, it will be as much up to him as the speaker to whip support. Silver has become increasingly deferential to his conference, and particularly on issues championed by its various sub-groups. The best recent case study is an abortion debate during the last legislative session, when Silver stood firm.
Cuomo proposed a 10-point women's agenda, which included abortion tweaks. The Senate, controlled by a Republican-dominated coalition, passed nine of its planks but refused to hold a floor vote on the abortion measure. Even when Cuomo reversed course and urged the Assembly to pass the individual bills, Silver stood behind a newly emboldened women's conference when it marched to Cuomo's office and told him it would not budge.
You could read this one of two ways: Silver, damaged, was forced into the position because he knew had no other choice, or Silver, the enlightened leader, deferred, and such appropriate deference is another example of the style that has helped him endure. The maneuver also allowed Silver to insulate some more conservative, marginal members who were able to vote aye on an omnibus package but would have had a harder time with an isolated vote on abortion.
Said O'Donnell: “He understands the difference between what he wants and thinks and what the group wants and the group thinks.”