I have known Sheldon Silver for years. He may be very greedy, he may have resisted changing the status quo in Albany, and we have certainly had our personal disagreements over the years, but I really have to say, I feel badly for the guy.
Anybody who has read my work or heard me on the radio knows how I have eschewed the culture of venality in Albany. It is a study of the worst in human sin. It is not democracy — indeed, it is quite the opposite. The man who has been keeping it that way, representing his colleagues in the Legislature, is Shelly Silver. He has had willing accomplices like Andrew Cuomo who killed the very Moreland Act Commission that ironically got the fighting U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to call a halt to the way things were getting done in the Capitol.
It was the famous ward-heeler, “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall,” who is remembered for two things that fit Shelly Silver to a T. The first is, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.” The second was the concept of “honest graft.” Obviously, Shelly Silver, the august Speaker of the Assembly, practiced both with a vengeance. He thought that he was doing his thing on the legal side of the graft line. Preet Bharara thought that he was on the felonious side of the line. Whether the U.S. Attorney has moved the line may end up as a question for a jury of Silver’s peers. However, Bharara appears to have finally opened up the overflowing cesspool that we call Albany.
If the members of the Legislature had a brain in their collective heads, they would see the train coming down the track and change the rules so that people could have faith in their government. My bet is that they won’t do that because too many of them are in too deep to make a change without the risk of someone blowing the whistle on them or incurring Silver’s wrath. This is not a man who forgets his political enemies and there are a lot of metaphorical bodies lying around to prove that. My student-powered newspaper, The Legislative Gazette, once ran a story about Silver going into the hospital. It was a long time ago, but Shelly thought it was inappropriate and never forgave the students for having done their jobs. And by this I mean twenty years later.
So now Shelly Silver is facing the fight of his life. If the U.S. Attorney has more solid evidence than he is already showing, Silver might have to make a deal and that could mean disclosing some of the dirty inner workings of the Legislature. It may mean that a lot of people will end up going to jail. And it may mean that a whole new group of fresh faces will be joining the Legislature come the next election. It would appear that none of Shelly’s colleagues are going to say anything bad about him. There is a famous story told by former Soviet dictator Khrushchev about Joseph Stalin. As the brutal Stalin lay dying, his advisors were called into a room knowing that Stalin was planning yet another bloody purge. As they stood around the man’s soon-to-be corpse, someone noticed that his big toe twitched and everyone in the room had a true sense of panic.
Of course, everyone wants to know what Andrew Cuomo has to fear here. We know that the U.S. Attorney was studying him, too, after he put a knife into the corruption-fighting Moreland Commission. We also know that no matter how many times Cuomo and Shelly Silver hug each other in public, there is no love lost between them. With Shelly gone, Cuomo’s path will be clear on things like changes in the education system and even ethics measures that Cuomo will be able to claim were his doing. Just when you think nothing will change, everything does.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/27/15