Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is no longer the top Democrat in New York politics. He faces the ambitious Gov. Andrew Cuomo who is closely allied with the state Senate’s Republican majority. And Silver has mustered — with rare difficulty — votes that infuriated his base support among public employee unions.
So why is this guy smiling?
He probably isn’t, publicly. The often dour and inscrutable Silver at 68 is as much a fixture in Albany as the carved faces of heroes and scoundrels sculpted into the Capitol hallways in the 19th century. The sphinx, he’s sometimes called, or Yoda.
Last week Silver had to respond, a bit tersely, to reporters’ questions of whether he will seek re-election to his lower Manhattan district this fall and to the speaker’s post in January.
“I intend to,” Silver said. That slammed some rumblings that his time is winding down after 36 years in office in the face of the Cuomo juggernaut, a tough vote to approve cheaper pensions for future public workers, and the retirement announcements of some of his key, veteran supporters in the Assembly including Majority Leader Ronald Canestrari.
But even during Cuomo’s first 16 months — a stretch that made him one of Time’s 100 most influential people — Silver has quietly scored critical victories by outmaneuvering the governor and the Senate GOP. They include December’s approval of a millionaire’s tax to raise $2 billion for Democratic priorities after Cuomo and Senate Republicans promised to block it as a “job killer.” Silver also secured the first major rent control protections in two decades, reinstated a system in which poorest schools get more aid, and amended other policies including mandatory teacher evaluations.
And Silver’s next big test — raising the minimum wage — is starting to go his way, again.
“Don’t play poker with that guy,” joked Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry. He’s one of the New York City Democrats with the stature and smarts to seize the coveted speaker’s job, yet who remains a Silver loyalist.
“A sign of a speaker is how he protects and keeps his majority,” said Aubry. He said the speaker’s job is tougher with a Democratic governor than under a Republican, and the rank-and-file appreciate Silver’s skill at handling both.
“It takes a lot more maneuvering,” Aubry said.
Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright of Harlem knows how honed Silver’s political skills are for the job. He is also the Manhattan Democratic chairman and is mentioned as a potential speaker should Silver step aside but maintains the “future is in his (Silver’s) hands.” The only coup attempt was in 2000, when Silver deftly fought off an overthrow bid by then Majority Leader Michael Bragman of the Syracuse area. The retribution was swift, and even today members are careful.
“I came to see Speaker Silver as the sane center holding the conference together,” said Michael Benjamin, a former Bronx assemblyman and now a good-government advocate. “He has all the versatility of bamboo. I’ve read where bamboo survived Hiroshima. … Governors come and go. Shelly endures.”
Silver’s power grew as he survived governors and Senate leaders, all of whom were frustrated by Silver’s ability to hold out for spending or policy changes. For years they tried to heap blame for overspending and gridlock on Silver, but he’s survived and is two terms from becoming New York’s longest-serving speaker.
“The man is the master of the legislative process,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll.
In the Cuomo era, under a constitution that provides extraordinary powers to a governor, few think the conference can afford to lose Silver.
“The speaker has worked effectively with five very different governors and Senate leaders, always emerging as the last man standing,” said David Catalfamo, a top aide for Republican Gov. George Pataki.
Canestrari, Silver’s appointed majority leader, who is retiring after 23 years in the Assembly, said his departure has more to do with wanting to retire than any reflection on Silver or his future.
“He’ll stay around forever, in my opinion,” said Canestrari, of Albany County. “He has no intention of leaving.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Gormley is the Albany Capitol editor for The Associated Press and has covered New York politics for the AP for more than 10 years.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.