Long Island Plays Key Role in Picking Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s Successor

Sheldon Silver arrested

Long Island’s Democratic county chairmen are hoping that nine of their party’s Assembly members from Nassau and Suffolk can unite around one person to succeed Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who will reportedly step down from the post he’s held since 1994 after he was arrested last week on federal corruption charges.

And the next speaker will most likely hail from New York City. Of the 105 members in the Assembly’s Democratic majority, four are from Suffolk and five from Nassau. But, given that New York City has 63 Assembly members, LI’s nine are not enough to push one of their own into the role, say Nassau Chairman Jay Jacobs and Suffolk Chairman Rich Schaffer.

“I don’t believe we’re going to end up with it being a Nassau or Suffolk person,” Jacobs told the Press, but he added that Nassau and Suffolk Assembly members should coalesce around “someone from the city” who “will understand what the suburbs are about and how important we are.”

“Long Island will be critical to picking the next person because there are nine of us,” Schaffer told the Press. “You need 54 to win, so nine is a pretty good bloc to help someone get to that number.”

Interestingly, the Island can boast already having the Deputy Speaker of the Assembly Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead). Hooper’s name has never come up as a serious successor. Nor has she reportedly put herself in the running—unlike a handful of her Albany colleagues.

The timing of his departure—the start of the legislative session and budget negotiations—created a chaotic situation. Silver has said he will not give up his Assembly seat because he expects to be vindicated once he gets his time in court to face the 35-page indictment handed down by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara that accused the Manhattan Democrat of accepting $4 million in bribes. Until the blizzard struck this week, it looked like Silver was trying to weather the political storm and hold onto his Speaker post as well.

The protracted behind-the-scenes negotiations over his fate were prolonged in no small part because he’s held power so long over his elected body, and been one of “the three men in a room” who negotiate the state’s budget every spring; the other two being Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, and the State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre). The Assembly press office in Albany, normally a source of a steady stream of news releases touting Silver’s achievements and pronouncements, was silent as members tried to figure out what to do. At one point, there was going to be a committee of five to replace him, but that notion proved short lived.

Then, on Tuesday, Majority Leader Joseph Morelle (D-Rochester), the former Monroe County Democratic chairman, announced that he will become the acting speaker next Monday. The conference votes on Feb. 10 to pick an interim speaker.

Morelle’s chances of getting the top post permanently are long at best, observers say. Traditionally, the Assembly has been a Democratic bastion of New York City, considering that only 23 members reside in the Empire State north of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

“It would be a huge surprise,” said Jacobs, if the next speaker were to come from that contingent.

Schaffer said he’s been fielding “a million phone calls going back and forth” from people interested in the speaker job who want the support of the LI contingent.

Besides Morelle, the names being touted as the next speaker are Assemb. Denny Farrell (D-Manhattan) and Assemb. Keith T. Wright (D- Manhattan), Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn),  Assemb. Catherine Nolan (D-Queens) and Assemb. Carl Heastie (D-Bronx).

Farrell, now 83, once ran for mayor and lost, but he’s seen as being very close to Silver. Wright, a longtime Harlem lawmaker, is a former state Democratic co-chairman and current Manhattan Democratic leader, who has been linked by some reports as Cuomo’s favorite. Heastie, who graduated from Stony Brook University and took over the Bronx Democratic party in 2008, is seen as getting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s support, according to the New York Daily News.

Suffolk County Republican Chairman John Jay LaValle sounded practically giddy in his public comments that he released Wednesday, urging taxpayers to “rejoice” over Silver’s resignation as speaker. In his mind, the arrest was confirmation “why our state government is the most corrupt in America and why we pay the highest taxes, and have the highest cost of living, highest utility costs, worst business climate and is the number one place taxpayers can’t wait to leave once they get the chance.”

But he didn’t stop there; he took a partisan turn: “Republicans in both the Assembly and the Senate have long proposed reform measures that were routinely blocked by Sheldon Silver. Now we know why.” He cited no examples of blocked legislation, however.

LaValle’s Suffolk Democratic counterpart, Rich Schaffer, didn’t see the speaker’s downfall as having much impact in local races on Long Island. Anyone “who looks at this as some sort of silver bullet to knock off a Democratic Assembly person” would be wrong, Schaffer said, adding that Democratic candidates for the State Senate were unable to capitalize on the corruption charges that dogged former Republican State Senate majority leader Joe Bruno in 2009. “Nobody was affected by being a friend of Joe Bruno,” Schaffer claimed.

Nassau’s Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs concurred with Schaffer’s expectation that Silver’s arrest would not turn out to be a potent weapon in a future Republican smear campaign. By contrast, Jacobs did think that Sen. Skelos’s political position as the Republican Senate leader was more “precarious” than whoever is the next Democratic Assembly Speaker “because she or he is not going to lose a [Democratic] majority in the next election no matter what happens.” By comparison Skelos’s control is thin, although his party now holds 32 of the 63 seats in the Senate.

As could be predicted, Jacobs, unlike Chairman LaValle, doesn’t blame New York State’s high cost of living on Speaker Silver and the Democrats because he points out that Skelos has long had “a seat at the table” as one of the three most powerful politicians in Albany.

“I’m still surprised that Long Island does so poorly in the school aid that it gets—and our property taxes are so high because of it,” said Jacobs. “If he had all that power and used it, you would think we would have gotten a better share of all the money back here on LI that we send upstate.”

But most New Yorkers, regardless of their political persuasion, would agree that state government is at a critical juncture because of the actions taken by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has said that his investigation of public corruption is continuing. “Stay tuned,” he said tellingly.

Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Gov. Cuomo in last year’s Democratic primary, has cited Speaker Silver’s arrest as cause for reforming state politics, especially the way campaigns are financed.

“Public corruption is still the root problem in New York politics, the reason why we have so much inequality,” she said in a recent email campaign.

Whether Teachout’s views will have any traction politically remain to be seen, but the issue of increasing accountability and oversight is foremost on the mind of Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition. She sees Silver’s anticipated departure as speaker as a chance to change the traditional power formula in Albany.

“We want this ‘three men in a room’ to end,” said Tyson. “We want there to be more democracy in both the Assembly and the Senate than just one guy making a decision for their whole house.”