Speaker Silver is a survivor … at least so far

You’ve really got to hand it to Sheldon “Shelly” Silver, the long-serving speaker of the New York State Assembly. He never loses his cool, no matter how viciously he is attacked by the press, his Republican adversaries, or even an occasional critic within his own Democratic conference. If Shelly Silver were in any way crooked, he would have been called to justice a long time ago because any ambitious person responsible for bringing him down would be hailed as a giant killer. There are several reasons why he has remained standing. The first is that no matter what anyone tells you, he fronts for his Democratic colleagues and they love and respect him for it. He takes the heat for all of them. He also controls a lot of the purse strings. He collects and distributes the money that his people need to run and win office. In the old days, the county chairs in New York collected and controlled that money. Now that responsibility is Shelly’s.

Silver now has a very powerful enemy in his own party, Governor Andrew Cuomo. If Cuomo brings forth an initiative that would dilute the power of the Legislature, like some of the anti-corruption legislation that the governor has been offering, and Silver says no, there’s not a lot that the governor can do about it. That’s why Cuomo set up his Moreland Act Commission. It was a shot across Silver’s bow. The commission is charged with investigating the corruptive relationship between money and politics. There is no question that something ought to be done about that but you have to wonder whether Shelly and Andrew will go to the mat on it or if the Moreland Act Commission is just meant to scare the hell out of the Legislature. We know that past efforts by the governor to put his imprint on politics in New York have largely failed. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, an earlier attempt by the governor to stamp out corruption (he says) has turned out to be a big joke because the people on the commission were in large part appointed by the legislative leaders.

There are people in the know who will tell you that it is not substantive change the governor wants, but control. After all, he has over $29 million in his own campaign coffers and people gave that money to him in order to get something back.

In any case, Shelly has hired lawyers to make the case that the governor’s Moreland Act Commission has no power over them because they are a separate branch of government. I don’t like it, but when push comes to shove, it may be upheld by the courts.

In the meantime, Shelly has a new problem that blew in like a hurricane. His friend William Rapfogel, the chief executive of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, has been accused of being a crook, big time. Rapfogel’s wife, Judy, is Silver’s long time chief of staff and she certainly knows a great deal about Shelly Silver. So, does Silver fire his chief of staff? Is that risky? The authorities say that they found boxes of cash in the Rapfogel home and Judy Rapfogel is said to know nothing about it. A prosecutor I know thinks that it would not be unusual for Willy Rapfogel to take a plea as long as his wife is left alone. He tells me that kind of thing happens all the time.

The Legislature has long been in need of reform. Now Andrew and Shelly are wrapped in a death struggle. Based on his history, I think Shelly will survive but there must be some furious negotiating going on behind the scenes. If there is one thing that might be said about the speaker it is that he’s a survivor, at least so far.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 9/30/13

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