With a single, much-anticipated decision, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaped from the obscurity of state politics to the middle of a Manhattan drama, slaying Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan for a $2 billion stadium on the West Side. The eloquence that Mr. Silver deployed on June 6 to explain his decision surprised many observers, who often view the veteran lawmaker as a gray and plodding figure who has mastered the dismal science of state politics.
“This fight is about restoring New York City’s soul,” Mr. Silver said, just hours before the Public Authorities Control Board voted down $300 million in state funding for the project. “It’s about honoring the sacrifices made on Sept. 11. It’s about a moral obligation each and every one of us committed to when we saw those towers go down.”
Few political insiders ever expected to hear Mr. Silver harangue his friend, Mr. Bloomberg, in such high rhetoric. His words were enough to make even the most Olympian hopes seem shallow-enough, perhaps, to draw a tear.
But before New Yorkers could get too verklempt about it, Mr. Silver crawled right back into his shell. By June 9, the old Speaker Silver had returned, complete with the halting voice and dry demeanor of a man who feels more comfortable in the backroom than the green room.
“There are issues that come up in the legislative process that sometimes take a higher profile, you know, at different times,” he said, downplaying his moment of glory in a telephone interview with The Observer.
Although some people would like to see Mr. Silver soar to greater heights-Mike Lupica, a sports columnist for the Daily News, wrote an homage urging him to run for Mayor this year-the Speaker, a 61-year-old Democrat, is perfectly satisfied to stay where he is.
“I will never run for an office I don’t want,” said Mr. Silver, who has represented the Lower East Side for nearly three decades. “I don’t understand why Mayor Bloomberg wants to be the Mayor and be as publicly exposed as he is 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Besides, the Speaker argued, it’s nice to set aside some hours for extracurricular pursuits. His legislative role (it “purports to be a part-time job,” he explained) also leaves time for other work, like scaring up cases for a personal-injury law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, where he is “of counsel,” and which brings him undisclosed fees along with no shortage of criticism.
After 28 years in the Assembly, including 11 years as Speaker, Mr. Silver now has time for both work and play. He is at the peak of his powers. Could anything disturb such smooth sailing?
Maybe. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is a favorite in next year’s race for Governor, and the topic of “reforming” Albany is a political winner. If Mr. Spitzer wins and wants to shake up the tired status quo in Albany, insiders speculate that he may just try to sweep Mr. Silver under the rug.
Such coups are not without precedent. When Governor George Pataki came to power in 1994, one thorn in his side-fellow Republican Ralph Marino-was promptly stripped of his post as the State Senate’s Majority Leader. Mr. Silver, however, says that his friendship with Mr. Spitzer is not so fragile.
“Eliot Spitzer and I have a very good working relationship,” the Speaker said. “I anticipate no circumstance under which the Governor of the State of New York, if it’s Eliot Spitzer, would see the need to champion a change in who the Speaker of the Assembly is.”
But it’s hard to tell how Mr. Silver-a creature of the deal making that is state politics-would handle the prospect of real reform in Albany. What’s more, some aspects of the Speaker’s style have drawn heavy criticism. Mr. Silver’s former communications director, Pat Lynch, transformed herself overnight into one of Albany’s best-paid lobbyists. And a 2002 hotel stay continues to dog him: That year, Mr. Silver soaked up the deluxe accommodations of a $1,500-per-night Las Vegas suite for just $109 a night, leading the state’s Lobbying Commission to launch an investigation of Caesar’s.
Through it all, Mr. Silver has gained a reputation as something of an anti-reformer, much to his frustration.
“I’ve always said to The New York Times they focus too much on process and not on results,” Mr. Silver said.
Albany’s reformers tend to disagree.
“If the legislature’s the problem, then Silver’s the problem. He’s been the defender, as has [Senate Majority Leader Joseph] Bruno-they’ve been defenders of the status quo. I think they’ve given way grudgingly to legislative reform,” said Gerry Benjamin, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the State University of New York at New Paltz. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of reform, Mr. Benjamin suggested, the Speaker still won’t bite: “The big items are the ones that Silver and Bruno and the people in power don’t like and don’t want.”
Mr. Silver’s own imperatives, though, are more complicated than many downstate observers realize. His top priority has been protecting the members of his Democratic caucus, and his own position at their head. In 1999, he approved a bill that abolished the commuter tax, in the hope of winning a suburban seat in the Assembly for Democrats, and the move still rankles in the city.
The Speaker has defended himself from threats before, however, including a challenge in 2000 from Michael Bragman of Syracuse, then the Democratic majority leader. After losing the bid for Speaker, Mr. Bragman paid the price for his audacity-he lost what little power remained to him and resigned the next year.
“Just ask the last guy who tried to unseat Shelley Silver: It’s very hard to do,” said political consultant Norman Adler. Regarding Mr. Silver’s stadium stance, Mr. Adler added, “I’ll tell you one thing: He reaffirmed the fact that he’s the man. It was a reaffirmation of the central role of the Assembly Speaker, and that isn’t going away fast.”
Even some of Mr. Silver’s detractors say that his stand against the West Side stadium will bolster the Speaker’s prospects, since it was a move that showcased both heart and heft.
“Shelly is the consummate deal-making, expedient politician, and the fact that he didn’t make the deal said something,” noted Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College. “You come to the inescapable conclusion that he somehow acted in his conception of the public interest of both his constituents and the larger city-that there was some true public element in his decision.”
Mr. Muzzio also noted that Mr. Silver had likely been offended by the Mayor’s assumption that the Speaker would simply go along with the plan. He added, “I think Shelly wanted to slap the Mayor around.”
Indeed, it was the slap heard ’round the world, a civic gesture with a humiliating sting and the undertones of a warning. The Mayor’s face was still burning a week later. Now, Mr. Bloomberg has consented to eat crow and pursue an Olympic Stadium in Queens, a shift that Mr. Silver supports. It’s unlikely that their current consensus, however, can even come close to paving over the rift from last week.
Mr. Silver noted that the Mayor’s spokesman, Ed Skyler, said that the relationship between the Mayor and the Speaker was damaged. “I don’t feel that way,” Mr. Silver said. “If he feels that way, it’s unfortunate. This is like family.”
Could the Mayor punish him politically? “I don’t think he would-I don’t think the Mayor could,” Mr. Silver said.
The Speaker’s rejection of the stadium led to a few days’ worth of speculation that Mr. Bloomberg would mount a campaign to unseat him in his home district. And while that speculation died quickly, Mr. Silver’s vulnerability at home mirrors his uncertain future in Albany’s long term. As the old Jewish Lower East Side vanishes, Mr. Silver is a politician increasingly without that building block of political power: an ethnic base.
To wit, a reporter tracked down the Speaker a couple of years ago, during a reception in his honor at the Bialystoker Nursing Home on East Broadway near Grand Street. An ambulance waited outside, ready to bear one of Mr. Silver’s elderly constituents away.
“I think I have a pretty good base politically,” Mr. Silver said last week. Defensively, he added that the Lower East Side still has “20 synagogues, at least!”
But even as the demographics shift, the Speaker has kept a good grip on his neighborhoods, suggested former Mayor Ed Koch. “I think what his district, the Lower East Side, has always wanted is someone who could-depending on who the groups were-bring home the beans and rice, currently, or the gefilte fish. And he does it all,” said Mr. Koch.
So are we witnessing the birth of Sheldon Silver, political superstar? Perhaps-but you wouldn’t know it from the Speaker’s posture, which has rapidly returned to his familiar nose-to-the-grindstone stance. Last week’s performance already seems a distant memory.
“He hasn’t done any basking,” said Charles Carrier, a spokesman for Mr. Silver. “We’re scheduled to end our legislative session in less than two weeks, so he has been focused on the agenda that we have here, which is fairly prodigious.”
Mr. Carrier added that, apart from observing the Jewish holiday of Shavuot this week, Mr. Silver would be anchored to his work in Albany. “No rest for the weary,” he sighed.
One of Mr. Silver’s colleagues in the legislature agreed that the Speaker’s sudden celebrity seemed unlikely to go to his head.
“The Speaker of the New York State Assembly is always under a certain amount of glare,” said Assemblyman Mark Weprin, a Democrat from Queens. “But I don’t think he’s going to be, all of a sudden, enjoying his new celebrity and saying, ‘Oh, I want to expand my horizons into other big things.’ I don’t think he’s going to be doing any movies with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,” Mr. Weprin added, laughing. “Although I guess you never know.”