After Arrest, New York Speaker Temporarily Relinquishes Duties

by | January 26, 2015

By Tom Precious

Embattled Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his allies crafted a deal Sunday night to let the Manhattan Democrat "temporarily" cede responsibilities of running the chamber to five colleagues while he fights federal corruption charges against him.

The deal, expected to be announced Monday, capped a furious day of behind-the-scenes negotiating and playmaking, in which some sources were adamant that was going to permanently depart while others laid out a plan in which five Assembly Democrats will pick up the work done by the powerful Assembly Speaker.

The prospect of five Assembly Democrats sharing power, given the various competing complexities of the 105-member Assembly Democratic conference, will likely prove to be not only historic but remarkably challenging. In the three-men-in-a-room world of Albany, it is also uncertain how the process might work that five Assembly members might represent the chamber in upcoming budget talks for the fiscal plan due by March 31.

The New York News first reported Sunday night that five Democrats -- all of whom have been interested at one point in becoming Assembly leader -- will somehow share power and represent the Assembly in upcoming state budget talks with the governor and Senate. The New York Post late Sunday night first reported that Silver was leaving office, but then amended its story to say he was in talks to leave.

The power-sharing group would be composed of four New York City Democrats -- Brooklyn's Joseph Lentol, Queens Cathy Nolan, Bronx's Carl Heastie and Manhattan's Herman Farrell -- along with current Majority Leader Joseph Morelle of Monroe County.

A Silver spokesman, however, strongly cautioned that Silver is not stepping down. "He is appointing a group of senior members to undertake various responsibilities such as budget negotiations to ensure a timely spending plan for the state. This will give him the flexibility he needs so that he can defend himself against these charges, and he is confident that he will be found innocent," said Michael Whyland, the Silver spokesman.

Silver was arrested last week by the FBI on bribery and kickback charges. The 70-year-old lawmaker, who has been speaker since 1994, was said to be confident that he could hang onto his job as the Legislature's top Democrat. But, as more and more lawmakers read the federal charges against him since they were made public last Thursday, rank-and-file Democrats were increasingly losing faith in having someone lead their chamber given the seriousness of the allegations against him and after a decade of corruption exhaustion in Albany.

Besides geographic, gender and racial breakdowns in the Democratic conference that were complicating matters, the weekend showed there was a clear generational divide in the Assembly among Democrats. Older Democrats were more supportive of Silver while younger Democrats were increasingly upset that Silver, with the specificity of the corruption charges against him, were privately looking to oust Silver. Some said they wanted not only Silver removed as Speaker, but a series of internal rules changes to make the house less reliant on one sole leader.

The likelihood of Silver temporarily stepping aside and then somehow returning if he is cleared of the corruption charges is next to zero. There is a long line of lawmakers who would like his job, but have never had the ability to stand out in a chamber that Silver has so dominated.

Silver called a closed-door conference of Assembly Democrats for 1:45pm Monday, though a blizzard hitting the downstate area of New York was inserting itself into Albany's political intrigue. Gov. Andrew Cuomo already is scheduled to stay on Monday in New York City to monitor storm response efforts.

Whether the deal Silver and his allies crafted Sunday night holds after the Monday afternoon conference with rank-and-file Democrats remains a serious question, some lawmakers said Sunday.

Silver has had a strong hold over his Democratic conference, but the Assembly has had a large turnover of members in recent years. Just over 40 percent of the Democratic conference has come to Albany since the 2010 elections, and there was a clear generational gap over the past several days in response to Silver's legal troubles. Some lawmakers say Silver's departure would not be enough, and that major internal rule changes are needed to spread more decision-making among rank-and-file lawmakers.

(c)2015 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)