Sheldon Silver is Bill de Blasio’s most powerful friend in the wilds of Albany.
Mr. de Blasio, the Democratic mayor, has repeatedly relied on the taciturn Assembly speaker to battle for his priorities in the state legislature, where New York City ambitions often crumble in a Republican-controlled Senate. But Mr. Silver’s arrest today on corruption charges may hamper Mr. de Blasio’s ability to rely on Mr. Silver to advocate for his city, observers say.
If the Lower East Side lawmaker were forced out of his post–for now, Assembly Democrats and Mr. de Blasio are sticking by him–a successor would likely wield far less clout than Mr. Silver, the speaker since 1994.
“This is de Blasio’s worst nightmare. He needed Shelly to be strong on the rent laws fight, to stand with teachers’ unions to push back on Cuomo’s pro-charter school crusade, and to occupy the left-flank on other issues too,” a Democratic operative argued. “If Shelly is ousted, de Blasio is much weaker politically in Albany, and that will surely be to Cuomo’s diabolical delight.”
Once he was elected in 2013, Mr. de Blasio quickly appointed Dean Fuleihan, Mr. Silver’s longtime fiscal and policy adviser, to serve as his budget director. Mr. de Blasio courted Mr. Silver and forged a strong working relationship with the speaker, who played an instrumental role in securing hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding for his universal prekindergarten expansion. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, no fan of Mr. Silver’s influence, has occasionally taken delight in thwarting Mr. de Blasio.
Already scandal-scarred for his role in using public money to cover up sexual harassment complaints in the Assembly, Mr. Silver frequently appeared at Mr. de Blasio’s side at press conferences. As Republicans in the Senate try to chip away at Mr. de Blasio’s progressive goals–higher minimum wage, stronger rent control laws, more independence from Albany–Mr. Silver serves as the crucial counter-force, a wily legislator controlling a fiercely loyal Democratic Conference.
Last year, even as Republicans routed Democrats across the state and nation, Mr. Silver somehow managed to grow his conference. Now Mr. de Blasio will have to proceed with caution as Mr. Silver faces the wrath of Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney who charged Mr. Silver with mail fraud, wire fraud and extortion.
Mr. de Blasio is expected to detail his Albany agenda in the coming weeks. The mayor said several times this afternoon that Mr. Silver is a “man of integrity” and refused to call for his ouster if he’s found guilty.
“It’s going to impact everybody. Let’s be clear, it’s chaos,” said Richard Brodsky, a senior fellow at Demos and former Democratic assemblyman. “Clearly Shelly had a special role in protecting New York City–over the next few days, two power centers will decide whether Shelly survives, the governor and the Democratic Conference.”
For the mayor, the photo-ops with Mr. Silver may be gone. So too may his leverage in the Democrats’ upcoming fight against the charter school lobby–Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Silver oppose boosting the cap on charters, a priority for Republicans and Mr. Cuomo.
Michael Benjamin, another former Democratic assemblyman, argued that Mr. de Blaso and his Albany lobbying team maintain strong ties to the city’s Assembly delegation and wouldn’t necessarily suffer if Mr. Silver is diminished.
“Bill de Blasio will still have other allies in the conference. They still have work to do and have to represent the interests of the city,” Mr. Benjamin said. “The real winner in all of this is the governor. The Assembly will be less likely to put up a strong fight against the State of the State agenda the outlined yesterday.”
While some Democratic sources say Mr. Cuomo could pressure Mr. Silver to step down from his leadership post, Mr. Silver has no obvious successor. Mr. Brodsky said Mr. Silver is “not indispensable.”
“The conference will decide his fate in the end, as it always has,” he said.