Sheldon Silver should not resign as Speaker of the Assembly.
He should—he must—take the lead on authentic reform and genuine accountability in Albany. He has to change, and he has to create change. Calls for independent commissions simply won’t get the job done. But through his absolute control over the Assembly, Mr. Silver already has the power to enforce change.
If he doesn’t act decisively, Mr. Silver will be remembered as a leader who didn’t have the guts to challenge a dysfunctional legislative culture, an apologist who refused to name and shame a rogue’s gallery of crooks, misogynists, and hacks more concerned with brute power than the common good.
Mr. Silver’s legacy as Speaker is in jeopardy as a result of his admitted mishandling of sexual harassment charges against former Assembly member Vito Lopez.
The Speaker approved a hush-money settlement last year for two women who accused Mr. Lopez of harassing them, a move he said he now regrets. An independent investigation by Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan asserted that by not referring the case to the Assembly’s ethics committee, Mr. Silver’s office opened the door for subsequent allegations of harassment against the boorish Mr. Lopez.
Mr. Lopez resigned on Monday. He tried to delay his departure for a month; expulsion threats and public pressure shamed him into stepping down immediately. But nobody believes the legacy of the Lopez case—or the boys’ club culture in Albany—will vanish as quickly.
Corruption comes in many forms in the state capital, as any semi-informed voter knows by now. The recent revelation that at least two members of the Legislature wore wires during confidential talks with colleagues has sent a shiver down the capital’s collective spine. More than two dozen state officeholders have been indicted or reprimanded in some way over the last several years.
That’s the sort of corruption that can end with a perp walk. But there’s another sort of corruption, too: the sort Mr. Lopez represented.
It’s no secret that some male legislators regard the women they work with as potential sexual conquests. The most vulnerable are the legions of bright-eyed, idealistic interns who arrive in Albany every September. They often leave Albany with a much seamier perspective.
One current member of the Assembly, Amy Paulin of Westchester, was a victim of sexual harassment when she worked in Albany before her election to the legislature. She has spoken eloquently about the need to change Albany’s culture. Mr. Silver’s resignation, she said, would do nothing to achieve that goal.
Mr. Lopez might be one of the more egregious sexual harassers in recent Albany history, but he is not alone. That’s the mindset Mr. Silver has to change.
He is, however, an unlikely agent for an enlightened code of conduct. More than a decade ago, he defended his chief of staff, who had been accused of raping a legislative staffer. Nothing happened. Two years later, he was again accused of rape. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
Mr. Silver has been in power for a ludicrous 20 years. His conduct at the time of the first rape accusation was as inexcusable as his cover-up of the initial harassment claims against Mr. Lopez. Those who seek his resignation are not without an argument.
But Mr. Silver now has an opportunity to redeem himself.
The question is whether he has the will to do so. He certainly has the power.