Silver at the Barricades Against an Energized, Press-Approved Newell

Paul Newell, dressed in a beige suit, his pockets stuffed with palm cards, was standing on the steps of St. Mary’s Church on Grand Street Sunday afternoon, stopping any parishioner he could get in front of to tell them that he’d been endorsed by every daily newspaper in New York City.

Two blocks away, Newell’s opponent, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, had a fleet of seven vans, which volunteers were driving all over the district to distribute literature that touted endorsements from two local papers: The Villager and Downtown Express. (Both are owned by Community Media, L.L.C.)

In the three blocks between Newell and Silver’s campaign headquarters, I ran into three three Assembly members (Rory Lancman, Cathy Nolan and Audrey Pheffer) and four volunteers, all handing out literature for Silver.

Apparently more was needed.

“I need to take literature to Grand and Clinton,” said one Silver volunteer, referring to the intersection where Newell had been speaking with churchgoers.

“You can take van four,” replied Patrick van Keerbergen, chief of staff to Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh of Manhattan (who, somewhat ironically, ousted freshman legislator Sylvia Friedman in 2006 by claiming she was too closely tied to Assembly leadership).

It’s an uphill climb to unseat one of the most powerful legislators in Albany–one of the “three men in a room” who control most of the money and set the agenda. Silver was first elected in 1976; he has been speaker since 1994. The sphinx-like Democrat has come to represent much of what is wrong with Albany, where transparency is not highly valued. He also has built a formidable operation that makes it difficult for anyone to run against him (in fact, no one has in many years.)

He prefers to operate quietly. (At the Democratic National Convention in Denver when I said I was writing about his race, Silver asked me, politely, “Why don’t you write about somebody else?” During another interview in Denver, the Bronx Democratic County Leader Jose Rivera, told me he was endorsing Silver “because I’ve known him for over 25 years and he has not changed.”)

Newell and his small band of volunteers were certainly outnumbered and out-machined. But then again, winning isn’t really the point, because it’s never been considered likely that he will.

Instead, Newell is using his relative success–he’s actually out-paced Silver in fund-raising in the 11-day pre-primary filing–to apply pressure to the speaker.

Newell is framing this all as the start of a long process. Standing outside St. Mary’s Church, he said, “I’m running to get the most votes in this election. That said, there’s no question we’ve already brought change. We’ve already taken on Albany. There’s no question about that. And people are scared.”

Those scared people, Newell said, are thinking, “Wow, a 33-year-old community organizer can put together a campaign that is going to rock Sheldon Silver with his $3 million in his account, and $8 million in his Speaker’s P.A.C. or whatever it is that he’s got.”

“If we’re successful, you’re going to see forty or fifty challengers to incumbents in 2010, in both parties,” Newell said, adding, “I don’t think there’s any doubt we had a role in that.”

Silver’s members—whose staff and budgets Silver controls—say Silver has been more responsive to their needs and legislative ideas than he once was. They also say, seriously, that he unfairly bears the brunt for the public’s misunderstanding of how Albany really works.

Pheffer, who represents part of Queens, stood outside Silver’s campaign office and told me, “Some of the criticisms of Assembly Speaker Silver, we take it personally.”

Also spotted briefly on Grand Street was the third Democrat in the primary, attorney Luke Henry. Dressed in jeans and a white dress shirt, he walked north along Clinton Street, past Delancey Street, into an area where there was notably less campaigning. When asked about speculation that he is associated with Silver, and only in the race to siphon votes from Newell, Henry said the rumors are “malicious” and “ludicrous.” He added, “It can’t just be anti-Silver. Where’s the housing programs? Where’s the senior programs?” He walked up to a group of senior citizens and thrust literature into their hands.

As he spoke, a young woman with a blue skirt and armful of Silver campaign literature walked into the building.

Before leaving Newell, I had the chance to chat with filmmaker Justin Sullivan, who is making a documentary about the race, with Newell as protagonist. Sullivan followed Newell, an Obama delegate, to Denver, and said he was in Newell’s apartment when the candidate made his first campaign phone calls, and when he tried on his first suit. I asked Sullivan if his film about a young, smart, underdog candidate would be anything like Street Fight, a documentary about Cory Booker’s brutal, failed campaign against then-Newark Mayor Sharpe James, which helped launch Booker’s successful bid for the office four years later.

“It’s like Street Fight, but with blogs, emails and civilized phone calls. Silver is civilized,” he said.

Silver at the Barricades Against an Energized, Press-Approved Newell