The bulletproof speaker: Cuomo has a mandate, Silver has Albany

Cuomo, Bruno, Silver. (Azi Paybarah, via flickr)
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Here’s the thing about Sheldon Silver, the man derided by good-government groups and editorial boards as the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the morass of bureaucracy called Albany: The Assembly speaker’s main constituency—the 100-plus Democratic members of his legislative supermajority—likes him just fine.

Which is why the notion of Andrew Cuomo finding a competent, ambitious replacement for Silver in the shallow bench that is the Assembly and then engineering a leadership coup—a notion recently posited, apparently by some meddling conference members, in The New York Post—is as unlikely as American Idol contestants demanding the ouster of Paula Abdul in favor of the Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Gelb.

It must be tempting to the governor-elect, certainly. Cuomo triumphed at the polls with the promise of reform on his lips, and if he took out Silver—the longest-serving Assembly speaker in the last half-century—he’d be received with standing ovations by any editorial board worth impressing. Cuomo would also be getting rid of the one Democrat in Albany capable of negotiating with him on equal terms, and of frustrating his agenda at will.

But the point is that even if Cuomo wanted to, it’s hard to see how he could.

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“I don’t see any way Shelly is not the speaker come January,” said Mark Weprin, a former Assemblyman who is now in the New York City Council. “He’s very deeply respected in his conference, and they’re the ones who elect him, not the editorial board and not the blogs.”

SHELDON SILVER WASN’T ALWAYS THE STATE Assembly prom king. There was a time, in the early years of his speakership, which began in 1994, that he was widely regarded as imperious and out of touch by the members who had elected him.

“The membership had no access to the speaker,” recalled Stephen Kaufman, an attorney and former assemblyman from the North Bronx who participated in a failed coup against the speaker in 2000. “You had to wait two to three weeks to see him.”

“Before 2000, Shelly would often not be at Democratic conferences, he actually wouldn’t be in the room a lot,” Weprin said.

Dissatisfaction with Silver surged in 2000, when African-American and Hispanic members faulted him for failing to support Comptroller Carl McCall’s run against Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. That dissatisfaction burst into the open on a Wednesday in May, when the Assembly’s second-in-command, a hard-nosed politician from Syracuse named Michael Bragman, launched a coup.

Thanks to the peculiarity of Assembly rules —and Bragman’s poor timing—Silver had the rest of the week and the weekend to whittle away at his opponent’s support. And so he did.

By Monday, when the vote was held, only 63 members—including about 20 Democrats—supported the measure to unseat Silver. The speaker held a press conference declaring victory, during which Silver said it was his intention to “cut the cancer out of the leadership team." The Post, of all papers, asked him to apologize for his choice of words. Meanwhile, with tyrannical efficiency, Silver systematically took his revenge on the coup backers.

He stripped Bragman of his majority leader title and the $34,500 in stipends, forced him to fire 12 staffers, reduced his overall budget from $1.36 million to $125,000 a year and stripped him of his capacious office across the street from the Capitol and his office off the Assembly floor, relocating him to the bowels, where the minority conference resided. The following month, a defeated Bragman forced back tears in front of a reporter for the New York Times.

As the Daily News editorial board noted at the time, “Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver managed to put down the coup against him almost before it began—by wielding the kind of crushing, autocratic power that prompted the takeover attempt in the first place.”

“They removed my chairmanship,” Kaufman, a member of the Bragman faction, told Capital. “I ran for reelection, but for the State Senate. I just couldn’t take being in the Assembly anymore.”

IF SHELDON SILVER’S REVENGE WAS SWIFT AND BRUTAL, he also heeded the thrust of the rebels’ complaints and fundamentally altered his manner as speaker.

The difference between pre- and post-coup Silver was “night and day,” said Weprin.

Before the coup, Silver rarely appeared at Democratic conference meetings. “Now, the Democrats don’t have a conference if Shelly is not in the room,” he said. “When a member wants to get Shelly on the phone now, you can get him at any time of the day. You call his office and they will forward you to Shelly.”

“He’s got solid support among the members, because he’s been a good leader, and he listens to his membership and does what they want,” said longtime political consultant George Artz. “He holds them together.”

As a prime example of the Democratic conference’s client relationship to its leader, many observers point to the fight over congestion pricing. Although Silver was said to have supported the measure personally, he refused to bring it to the floor for a vote, because he didn’t want his members to have to publicly take sides on the controversial legislation. All the while, Michael Bloomberg—the chief advocate for the congestion pricing scheme—was heaping as much pressure as he could on Silver. The speaker didn’t budge.

“He wanted to show his suburban conference members that he would support them,” said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “He takes care of his conference.”

As usual the editorial boards were outraged.

“Silver denied the public even that basic exercise in democracy,” said the Daily News. “He simply refused to let congestion pricing come to the Assembly floor for a vote, where it may well have passed with Republican support."

The Times, in an editorial entitled, “Mr. Silver Does It Again,” said, “New Yorkers should remember Monday as the day Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, used the power of his office to deprive them of $354 million in federal funds to help mass transportation, ease traffic congestion and improve the air that all New Yorkers breathe.”

Silver was out of sight somewhere, not caring.