Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Death of Sheldon Silver
A chapter in New York history closes
When I first began covering politics in New York a decade ago, there were few Democrats beyond New York City who really mattered. There was the governor, of course, a first-term force named Andrew Cuomo. There were state senators who seemed to be on the rise. But if you were someone in the largest city in America who wanted to see some policy of import live or die, you were rushing to the taciturn Orthodox Jew on the Lower East Side, Sheldon Silver.
Silver’s death, announced Monday night, marks the conclusive end of a certain twentieth century style of politics. The old power brokers have vanished. This is not to be lamented, merely to be explained. Robert Moses was brought down in the late 1960s, his end made possible by a man of similar vintage—all titanic hunger and ambition—named Nelson Rockefeller. Cuomo aspired to such heights and never met them, but did accumulate enormous clout over a decade. In the old world, there were always greater forces at play, globalization and financialization and the demands of the masses, but you could feel that in quiet backrooms somewhere, a few men really determined the course of events.
Silver was one of them. He grew out of an era that no longer exists, one of neighborhood Democratic clubs that ran neighborhoods and Jewish men that controlled legislatures. From the 1970s until 2015, the Democrats in the Assembly would always send a Jew to speak for them. There was Stanley Steingut, Stanley Fink, Mel Miller, Saul Weprin, and Sheldon Silver. The Jew in me, of course, can only smile in admiration from a distance, even if I never quite devoted myself to the faith like them. They were all largely men of a certain class and temperament, their politics honed on street corners and in schoolyards, their degrees won from the non-elite schools that would have them. Silver’s boyhood Lower East Side still retained memories of its radical past, when the socialist Meyer London represented the neighborhood in Congress and self-taught communists could be found in every other storefront, passing out their pamphlets for tomorrow. Silver was no radical and would never be one. He was a machine Democrat, proudly so, and if he wasn’t readying for his future in Albany, he was shooting hoops on the pockmarked public courts.
Silver was speaker for twenty-one years. He outlasted mayors, governors, and presidents. Saul Weprin’s sudden death of a heart attack paved the way, as well as Mel Miller’s legal troubles. Politics is, if nothing else, luck and timing, and Silver would have plenty of it until it all went away. Silver’s power was a function of his talent and cunning, his twin abilities to build consensus and inspire fear. In 2000, a number of Assembly Democrats plotted a coup against him and he quickly crushed it, ruining the political career of the assemblyman who opposed him, Michael Bragman. At the same juncture, longtime lawmakers felt incredible loyalty to him. As a young reporter in 2015, I saw this firsthand, looking on perplexed as the veterans of the lower chamber struggled openly to go against Silver when he was indicted on corruption charges. Bill de Blasio, still thinking Silver would butter his bread, called him a “man of integrity.”
Silver’s position in the political solar system, until 2015, was enviable. It was not enviable in the conventional sense, because he almost always led an Assembly that would have to negotiate with a Republican-controlled State Senate. For 12 years, he faced down a Republican governor in George Pataki. Where others may have seen futility, Silver saw opportunity. The dirty secret in Albany was that only the Senate Democrats didn’t like the minority. Mario Cuomo, like his son, was content to govern with a divided legislature, better to increase his own hand and dodge pesky liberal priorities he’d rather talk about than see delivered into law. The Assembly Democrats didn’t mind either. Sure, some could be annoyed their bills would die in the Senate, but longtime incumbents were pleased as long as the same deal was cut every 10 years: Republicans gerrymander their Senate districts and Assembly Democrats enjoy the same privilege. If survival is more important than policy-making—and for the veterans who enjoyed choice committee chairmanships, hefty staff budgets, and convenient Albany parking spaces, it was—than the status quo is good enough.
In a world of Republican control, Silver was all Democrats, especially of the progressive variety, really had. It was not so much that Silver engineered this reality; it was just he was not going to disturb it too much. If you were a Democrat who needed city interests protected from a suburban Republican happy to do the bidding of the landlord lobby or some social conservative, it was Silver’s office you visited—and probably only Silver’s. In the Pataki era, he was the only game in town. Silver’s power was such that he could be far more brutally effective at nullifying ambitions than seeing them through. He stymied housing for poor Puerto Ricans out of deference to his political base. He ended a crucial commuter tax for the city in 1999, making a poor political calculation. Congestion pricing is belatedly becoming law in 2023 because Silver refused to support it in the 2000s, even as the billionaire Michael Bloomberg tried to shove it through Albany. Bloomberg’s billions meant nothing when Silver, using a similar mechanism that would also kill the Amazon deal in 2019, crushed Bloomberg’s dream of a West Side football stadium. Eliot Spitzer’s political career didn’t just end because he solicited a prostitute; it ended because Silver, who didn’t like Spitzer, told the new governor he had the votes to impeach him and would. Spitzer resigned.
Silver, though, was not merely an obstructionist. He did carry the torch in Albany for liberal causes. He was pro-abortion and pro-same-sex marriage, leading his chamber through votes that, in another era, were not terribly easy to take. He consistently backed minimum wage hikes and tougher labor laws. He secured enormous amounts of funding for city housing, public schools, roadways, and transit. He was the only person of consequence in Albany who cared about the rights of tenants, though he was unable to prevent the devastating deregulation of rent-stabilized apartments in the late 1990s. In 2014, the newly-elected de Blasio went first to Silver when seeking a tax hike on the rich to support his idea for a universal pre-K program. Silver backed the program immediately and helped push Cuomo to eventually allocate state funding for it.
With Democrats in full control of the legislature, there is no need for anyone like Silver. Carl Heastie, his successor, does not wield such extraordinary influence and probably never will. Today, there are multiple power centers, and that is healthier for a democracy. Kathy Hochul cannot run roughshod over Andrea Stewart-Cousins and doesn’t want to. Heastie cannot single-handedly unravel or make possible so much.
Silver was corrupt, even if the trial against him failed initially to prove a quid pro quo. He was accused of accepting nearly $4 million in illicit payments in exchange for taking official actions for a cancer researcher at Columbia University and two developers. Found guilty of federal corruption charges in 2015, Silver successfully challenged that conviction and got it overturned in 2017. A second trial and second conviction would come in 2018. Silver stayed out of prison until 2020, when he was finally, despite poor health, sent to serve a six-and-a-half-year sentence.
It was a sad ending to a career that was never easy to define. Silver showed he did care about others. He also cared about enriching himself at the expense of others. The story of late twentieth century and early twenty-first century New York cannot be told, in any serious way, without Silver. He marked a time fast receding from us.