This month is the 20th anniversary for Democratic State Assemblymember Sheldon Silver’s reign as speaker of the New York State Assembly. Many wonder how he has lasted so long given all the scandals committed by many former members of the Democratic State Assembly caucus over his tenure. The answer is simple.
Speaker Silver rules the State Assembly with an iron hand. The majority of his loyal flock supplement their base pay of $79,000 per year with lulus for chairing dozens of useless committees and subcommittees. These are up to $41,500. This can result in a salary of $121,000 per year. This is supplemented by day-to-day meal expense accounts and reimbursement for travel to and from Albany.
He controls whose bills come out of committee to a full vote, funding for member item pork barrel projects, staffing, mailings and district office budgets. Speaker Silver also controls the Democratic State Assembly campaign committee which provides funding to the handful of members who actually have to run competitive races against Republican opponents.
In the past, former Republican State Senate majority leaders, the late Warren Anderson, Ralph Marino, and Joe Bruno cut deals with Democratic State Assembly Speakers Stanley Steingut, Stanley Fink, Mel Miller, Saul Weprin and Sheldon Silver. These political back room arrangements were a quid pro quo deal preserving the status quo. Each gave the other unlimited freedom to protect and expand their respective majorities in each legislative house they controlled.
The existing district lines for State Assembly, State Senate and Congressional representatives look like a jig saw puzzle. Every 10 years after the census, district lines have to be redrawn. The past four reapportionments were based upon the 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010 census. This resulted in decades of more and more Republican State assemblymembers permanently disappearing.
In a case of the ultimate success of gerrymandering, Democrats totally eliminated any GOP opportunities for State Assembly seats within NYC, outside of Staten Island. Democrats come out of NYC with a 59-to-2 edge, making it virtually impossible for the GOP to ever regain control or even have a serious role to play in the State Assembly. On Long Island, in the Hudson Valley and other communities in upstate New York, they packed as many Republicans as possible into as few districts as possible creating 30 more safe Democratic State Assembly seats. Many of the upstate seats are based in Albany, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and other smaller cities along with surrounding suburban areas. Speaker Silver is always assured of about 100 votes. This is more than necessary to override any vetoes of bills by any governor even Andrew Cuomo. He currently has 99 loyal Democrats to Republican State Assembly minority leader Brian Kolb’s 40 votes. There are at present 11 vacant seats of which Democrats held eight and the GOP three. Should Governor Cuomo call for a Special Election, Democrats will probably win the same numbers as five come from very reliable NYC based districts.
Upon retirement, too many assemblymembers and their employees join the several thousand infamous State Street Albany lobbyists. Subsequently, they return to the capital on behalf of their new employers for client “favors.” Albany lobbyists, just like in Washington, play a behind the scenes role in assisting members and staff of the State Legislature to insert favorable language into bills. This is buried in the fine print contained within the hundreds of bills and annual adopted state budget. This is known as a quid pro quo.
Lobbyists purchase tickets to elected officials fundraising events held during evening hours after the daily legislative sessions. They also have their own political action committees make direct campaign contributions to candidates running for another term. Union lobbyists will not only deliver dollars, but endorsements which provide volunteers to run phone banks, along with canvassing door to door for election day vote pull operations.
The 2014 State Legislature Session Calendar covers a six month period from Jan. 1, 2014 to June 30, 2014. There are 129 available weekdays. After subtracting New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day, most ordinary New Yorkers will be working 125 days. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s chamber is scheduled to be in session only 62 days. Not bad for a part-time job. Many members find the time to hold down second jobs paying even more.
Real change will only come to Albany with the departure of Speaker Silver and other members of his loyal flock, who continue to stand by as scandal after scandal unfolds on their watch. Consider recent history of the Queens County Democratic Party clubhouse. How many more fellow members will follow in the footsteps of former Queens Democratic State assemblymembers Alan Hevesi, Brian McLaughlin, Anthony Seminaro and others who have been indicted and had to resign in shame?
The best hope of defeating Speaker Silver may be in his own backyard. Several years ago his local slate of candidates for various Democratic Party local district leadership positions lost to a slate of independent reform candidates in the September Democratic Party primary. The story went unreported by many political reporters and newspapers. It could be the start of something big in 2014.
Few remember the story concerning Speaker Silver’s 2008 September Democratic primary victory. This was also missed by many political reporters and media. Speaker Silver’s win of his first real primary contest was really nothing to cheer about, when you look into the details. The margin of victory with 6,745 (68 percent) in defeating Paul Newell with 2,301 (23 percent) and Luke Henry 879 (9 percent) was hardly a mandate. When you add the tens of thousands of registered Democrats voting for none of the above by staying home to those of Newell and Henry — clearly an overwhelming majority of constituents failed to give him a vote of confidence for reelection. This was despite his seniority, many years in office, delivering millions of dollars in local member item pork barrel spending to his favorite local groups along with support by the United Federation of Teachers and most labor unions. Don’t forget all the endorsements at the time from fellow Democrats Senators Clinton and Schumer, Congressmembers Nadler, Maloney and Rangel, Governor Paterson, State Comptroller DiNapoli, NYC Comptroller Thompson, Public Advocate Gotbaum, NYC Council Speaker Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Stringer, Manhattan County Democratic Party Chairman Denny Farrell along with virtually every Manhattan incumbent Democratic State Senator, Assemblymember and NYC Councilmember. Challengers Newell and Henry were the moral equivalent of David fighting Goliath. Newell and Henry had token amounts of funding to run against Silver’s multimillion-dollar campaign, financed primarily by the usual Albany Pay for Play special interest crowd.
The demographics of Speaker Silver’s Lower Manhattan Eastside 65th district continue to change. With both name recognition and experience, Newell or Henry could give it another go. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. In the 1970s, everyone believed that the late Brooklyn Assembly Speaker Steingut was politically invincible just like Silver today. Current Kings County Democratic Assemblymember Helene Weinstein was a political novice with little money, union or any special interest support challenged Steingut for his State Assembly seat in the Democratic Party primary. Ms. Weinstein ran a grassroots campaign supported primarily by volunteers beating all the odds and toppled Speaker Steingut from his throne. Lightening can strike twice. There are only so many millions in personal member item pork barrel projects that Speaker Silver can bring home to his district. Many of his loyal older constituents continue to succumb to old age. More and more new and younger voters in his district are beginning to wake up and acknowledge that Speaker Silvers pork to his favorite local community organizations is not kosher for taxpayers. Don’t shed any tears as his pension is something constituents can only dream about. His lucrative law practice will continue along with ample opportunities to return to Albany as a well-compensated lobbyist.
As one of the infamous “Three Men in the Room” — change will only come to Albany with an honest reapportionment and election of a new governor, state Senate majority leader and state Assembly speaker. Sadly, taxpayers may have to wait until 2022 for this to happen.