“We Need a Larger Room,” How Will the New Assembly Leadership Function in the Toxic Halls of Albany?

Sheldon Silver, the taciturn leader of the NYS Assembly was arrested, a full perp walk, and charged with using the power and prestige of his office to share in millions in legal fees from law firms with which he was affiliated: unseemly, for many despicable; whether his actions violate the law will be decided by a jury many, many months, maybe a year, down the road.

Legislative bodies are controlled by speakers and majority leaders selected by the political party in control of the body. Boehner in the House and McConnell in the Senate are in the news daily, frequent guests on the Sunday morning news programs and on C-SPAN every day, they are the face of their party.

Sheldon Silver was elected as Speaker of the NYS Assembly in 1994, his leadership was challenged in 2000, and he has ruled with a firm hand. Silver is not on talk shows, he does not give interviews, he appears brusque and aloof, a phrase here, a few words there, in many ways the anti-hero.

I am told he is an avid Ranger fan and a mediocre golfer, a trait shared with many New Yorkers.

Silver has succeeded in running an extremely diverse caucus with widely varying interests: urban/suburban/rural, White/Black/Hispanic, New York City versus the rest of the state, the competing five boroughs within New York City, the rural poor versus the wealthier suburban areas, and on and on. Silver has been masterful at juggling the interests around the state and negotiating budget deals that satisfied his conference.

He uses the power of his office to reward and punish members for real or perceived indiscretions. The conference is the Democratic caucus that convenes before or after each session: members only. The conference is an opportunity to speak freely in a “safe environment,” the unwritten rule: what is said in the conference stays in the conference. If a legislator whispers to a journalist, who writes an article with an “unnamed source,” the source might face the wrath of the Speaker.

The Speaker controls the Assembly, from assigning offices, to assigning coveted positions on committees or task forces, to naming committee chairs, and, to the all-important: which bills make it to the floor for votes.

Over the next two years, the election cycle, over 10,000 bills will be introduced into the Assembly and fewer than five hundred will eventually become law – less than five percent. The Speaker is the gatekeeper.

State legislatures vary enormously, in some members are part time; the New Hampshire legislature has four hundred members and when in session meets two days a week, and the total pay is $200 The Texas legislature meets every other year for 140 days, a salary of $28,000 every other year. The New York State legislature meets from January until mid-June, usually Monday through Wednesday, and Monday through Friday during budget time and in the closing weeks. Members are salaried, $79.500, with no raise since 1999, and a modest stipend to cover costs for the days the legislature is in session. Some legislators maintain law practices, or other employment, many have no other employment. All members have staffed offices in their districts.

Is Silver the ogre, the control freak, lashing or hugging each and every member, scrutinizing every member comment, or, is he the skilled leader, listening to the diverse needs of his conference, and producing results for his members?

It was clear that a seriously wounded Silver could not lead the conference, especially with an aggressive governor with long, long agenda.

This was undoubtedly a busy weekend, the leaders; the leaders within the Assembly and within the Democratic Party came up with a compromise – a shared leadership that, at least in the short term, satisfies the needs of the conference.

Five senior members will share the Assembly leadership; from “three men in a room,” to six men and a woman, a larger room.

Denny Farrell chairs the Ways and Means Committee, is highly regarded by his peers, represents Harlem, and is 83 years old, Joe Lentol chairs the Codes Committee, again, highly regarded, an Assembly member for over 40 years, represents North Brooklyn, Cathy Nolan chairs the Education Committee, a thirty -year member of the Assembly, she represents the Ridgewood area of Queens, Carl Heastie chairs the Labor Committee, has served in the Assembly since 2000 and is the Bronx Democratic County leader and Joseph Morelle, the Majority Leader, is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Assembly, is a 25-year member representing a Rochester area district.

The “new five” provide geographic, racial and gender diversity with decades of experience navigating the labyrinthine hallways of Albany.

Will “new five” compete with each other; are we witnessing a tryout for the speakership, a competition?

Will the conference firmly support the “new five” or will members try and play one against the other for their own benefit?

Will Cuomo be able to split apart the “new five” by offering “this and that” to individual members?

The overarching agreement is that the conference truly dislikes the Governor, and, for a simple reason, he sunk the discussions over a long, long delayed salary increase. Sixteen years without a raise stings. and makes it harder and harder to pay the bills.

Although the new Assembly junta is unwieldy, the leadership has a rare opportunity to exhibit their leadership, to stand up to the Governor and create a budget that represents the needs of the Assembly, not necessarily the needs of the Governor.

If the April 1 budget deadline passes without an agreement the Governor’s luster will fade, he may be able to force through his budget in incremental steps, however, his leadership will be tarnished. Denny Farrell and Joe Lentol have been around forever, they have no aspirations beyond their current safe seats, and attempting to bully them could backfire badly for Andrew. Carl Hestie is a budget guru, with real political creds and maybe ambitions well beyond the Assembly and Cathy Nolan has well deserved close ties with teachers and parents.

Fred Dicker in the NY Post reports that Silver may not be the only elected in US District Attorney Bharara’s sights,

“Andrew’s been working the phones day and night, staying up into the early morning hours, making hundreds of calls in one day trying to find out what the hell is going on,’’ a source close to the governor said.

Cuomo, who has retained a private lawyer, has enlisted several former federal and state-level prosecutors with ties to Bharara’s office including Steve Cohen, his former chief-of-staff, in an effort to find out Bharara’s next move, the sources said.

“He’s freaked-out, furious, and obsessed with fear, it’s like a nightmare for him. The whole narrative he laid out for his second term has been derailed by Bharara,’’ said a source in regular contact with the governor.

“The narrative has been taken over by Bharara and it’s all about Albany’s corruption, not Cuomo and his program for the state,’’ the source said.

Anyone know about Kathy Hochul’s views on education? (She is the Lt Governor and would replace Andrew if Preet dropped the ax again)

Whoever thought the actual world of politics would mirror House of Cards (new season on Netflix February 27) or Scandal?

UPDATE: At 5:15 PM on Monday Democrats are in closed door conference as the “leadership by committee” plan appears to be falling apart before it begins …

UPDATE: At 7:45 PM members are still closeted debating the future of Silver and the conference, as a member once told me you need a leader with a whip … ” … if a members tries to undercut a deal s/he must be punished, and everyome must know it.” Can they find such a leader?

2 responses to ““We Need a Larger Room,” How Will the New Assembly Leadership Function in the Toxic Halls of Albany?

  1. Cuomo will escape unxcathed..There will be lots of innuendo, and then it will evaporrate. The Dem Party cannot have one of its potential national candidates, and a true democrat fall to the wayside. I mean afyer Hillary, who else meets that profile? By the way, where did Preet come from, and what is his political affiliation/and his political ambition. Guiliani came from The Us Attourneys office and used that background to become Mayor…


  2. Preet was appointed by Obama in 2009 and before that worked for Schumer


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