Dark Days for Sheldon Silver and Impending Chaos for New York State Assembly

January 22, 2015 Updated: January 22, 2015

NEW YORK—Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s arrest for corruption throws a wrench into the Albany legislature. Democratic leaders may be vying for his position, but as a political powerhouse, Silver’s shoes will be hard to fill, say experts.

One of the influential “three men in a room,” which included Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the Senate majority leader, Dean Skelos, Silver could now be facing 100 years in prison for kickbacks and bribes.

He may be one of several high-profile politicians that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is investigating for corruption, as he indicated Thursday with the ominous warning, “Stay tuned.” And there could be more arrests to come.

With the loss of Silver, Albany may be in turmoil.

Under state law, if Silver is convicted, he would lose the speakership and be expelled from the assembly. And while his case is pending, Silver would be preoccupied defending himself.

“It will be difficult for him to command the respect of the members and provide the attention to the responsibilities as a speaker while he is working on his criminal defense,” said Robert Straniere, a lawyer and former Republican Staten Island Assemblyman.

Power Vacuum

Formerly, Sheldon Silver had been a force to contend with. “Nothing happens in the legislature that Shelly doesn’t agree to,” said Straniere.

But the scandal has created a power vacuum in Albany, according to Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College, leaving an opportunity for those eager to become speaker.

“It could happen quietly. But there’s certainly going to be some jockeying for power,” said Zaino.

Although many Democrats have expressed hope for Silver’s innocence, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, there are several names being tossed around for a replacement speaker.

Some think Keith L.T. Wright, an assemblyman who represents Harlem, could become speaker, or perhaps the Bronx Democratic boss, Carl Heastie. Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, who represents the Rochester area, was also a potential candidate.

It will be difficult for him to command the respect of the members and provide the attention to the responsibilities as a speaker while he is working on his criminal defense.
— Robert Straniere

Still, Silver maintains the support of his Democratic colleagues—at least on the surface.

“Nobody with sense is going to move publicly for a long time because Mr. Silver is popular among his colleagues,” said Henry Sheinkopf, president and CEO of a public affairs and political consultancy firm.

Amidst possible quiet jockeying, assembly members have a lot on their plates. They will be rushed in their work on the state budget, due in March, after canceling a session Thursday following Silver’s scandal. According to Zaino, it could also impede Cuomo’s agenda, which he outlined a day earlier, that involves serious criminal justice reforms.

How the assembly will function while Silver’s preoccupied  is under speculation.

Others say the assembly is likely to be more cooperative in passing legislation, to avoid creating controversy.

“They can’t afford to be obstructionists and create anymore public anger,” said Sheinkopf.

But what individual assembly members might desire could be different from the outcome, said Zaino.

“Wanting to pass legislation and being able to do it are two different things,” she said. “Silver was a strong leader who pulled votes together.”

Stay Tuned

And yet the assembly could have more to fear, said Doug Muzzio, a public affairs professor at Baruch College. He called the situation in Albany “nothing approaching chaos.”

When U.S. Attorney Bharara goes after more corrupt politicians upstate, that’s when “we’ll have a real mess in Albany,” he said.

“Sheldon Silver’s a big notch on the prosecutor’s gun,” if he is convicted, said Muzzio, and Silver knows who else is corrupt.

The current atmosphere in the New York capital is full of paranoia, according to Sheinkopf, the political consultant, now that someone has been arrested. No one can trust anybody.

“They don’t know who else is wired,” said Sheinkopf.