Rebellion of the Hollow Men


We introduce bills that go nowhere. We feel like hollow men wandering the corridors of the capitol.

—Democratic assemblyman Stephen Kaufman of the Bronx

Amid the tempestuous political moves and counter-moves in Albany in the wake of last week’s failed revolt against assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, it was almost possible to miss the rare glimpse into the inner workings of one of the state’s most powerful political bodies.

In a startling break from Albany’s usual closed-mouth, lock-step support for party leaders, Democratic legislators were suddenly openly giving vent to long pent-up frustrations about what they charged is Silver’s secretive and autocratic style of leadership.

Even after their effort to replace Silver with longtime assembly majority leader Michael Bragman had crumbled, lawmakers were still speaking out with unusual candor about the inner workings of the Silver regime.

“Policy decisions on legislation are made by staff in the speaker’s office. Sometimes you get invitations to come to a press conference to show support of the speaker and stand around and smile,” said Martin Luster, a Democrat from Ithaca.

“You ask to see the speaker, you get put on a list, and if you’re lucky you get to see him for a minute two weeks later, ” he adds. “Mid-level staffers get more authority than committee chairs. I’m an elected official; it is simply demeaning.”

The rebels, who at one point numbered more than half of the assembly’s 98 Democrats, according to Bragman and others, asserted that while they are often shut out of the process, influential lobbyists have ready access to the speaker.

“The problem is that [the lobbyists] get preferential treatement. They get in there, while we feel locked out,” said Stephen Kaufman of the Bronx.

On Tuesday, a day after their revolt had crumbled, 20 Democratic assembly members, dubbing themselves the Democratic Majority Reform Caucus issued a seven-point manifesto calling for basic reforms and basic respect from the speaker.

“We should not, as members, have to depend on media accounts to be informed of a majority position,” stated the caucus. The list demanded a secret vote for the speaker’s election, regular access to the leadership, and courtesy from top staff working for the speaker.

“Too often in the past, senior staff has treated individual members, and the assembly body as a whole, as nothing more than pawns on a chessboard,” said the statement.

Even Silver’s staunchest supporters acknowledged a basis in fact for some of the complaints. The speaker is often aloof and distant, they conceded. While his predecessors, Mel Miller and Saul Weprin, were often similarly heavy-handed in dealing with the Democratic conference, they were viewed as more accessible and collegial.

“None of us are perfect,” said Cathy Nolan of Queens, the chairwoman of the assembly’s labor committee, who said she is with Silver “until the last dog dies.”

Silver himself, mindful that a new challenge could still be mounted against him in December at the beginning of the next legislative session, spoke about being more open in the future. “At least we have that,” said one of his opponents.

It was a bumbled coup from the start, however.

Bragman, who represents Syracuse, was quickly tagged as someone with a conservative approach to gun control and abortion. Moreover, Bragman brought “baggage,” Silver backers said, referring to Bragman’s 1982 acquittal on bribery charges.

The state’s top labor leaders, including state AFL-CIO chief Denis Hughes, health care workers leader Dennis Rivera, and teachers union head Randi Weingarten, issued a hands-off statement saying nothing should get in the way of pending labor legislation, including a cost-of-living hike for city and state retirees.

Silver also fired warning shots by swiftly stripping Bragman of his post as majority leader, including the perks and an extra $34,500 a year that goes with the position. Luster and fellow Bragman-backer Ronald Tocci of New Rochelle lost their committee chairmanships.

Many assembly members reported receiving phone calls from Silver’s staff warning them to get in line and back the speaker.

“There were 53 members who openly wanted a change in leadership,” said Bragman later on the assembly floor. “Many, many more would have come forward if they had not feared reprisals.

The rebels started out believing they had the backing of some of the state’s most powerful political players, including state comptroller Carl McCall and the Democratic leaders of the Bronx and Queens.

“I was informed that Mike [Bragman] had support from major figures throughout the state,” said Kaufman.

Any such promises, however, quickly dissolved.

McCall, a declared gubernatorial candidate, reportedly wanted Bragman because he resented Silver’s tacit support of Andrew Cuomo‘s own bid for the governorship. But within 48 hours of Bragman’s May 17 announcement that he was seeking Silver’s post, McCall was maintaining a hands-off policy.

“His position was clear that this was an internal assembly matter that should be resolved by the assembly majority,” said McCall spokesman Steve Greenberg, who acknowledged that the comptroller “got a lot of calls from those supporting the speaker and from those supporting Bragman.”

Two days later, Bronx assemblyman and county leader Roberto Ramirez had also backed away from the revolt, even though as many as eight of the county’s 10 representatives were supporting Bragman.

Several members said they believe Ramirez is a likely candidate to replace Bragman as majority leader. “At no point did I ever commit to anyone.” said Ramirez.

By Sunday morning, May 21, the die was cast when Queens Democratic leader Tom Manton had breakfast at Ratner’s on Delancey Street with Silver. The first item on the menu, according to Queens assembly sources, was Silver’s support of councilman Walter McCaffrey’s primary challenge to Queens congressman and Manton loyalist Joseph Crowley.

Manton, who did not return calls, emerged from his Ratner’s meeting to announce that a “new era of goodwill begins with support for Sheldon Silver as speaker of the assembly.”

Manton’s defection effectively quashed the coup. But on Monday, when a resolution to allow a vote on election of a new speaker was brought to the floor, several members seized the opportunity to say out loud what had previously only been said in secret. Brooklyn assemblyman James Brennan, while voting against the measure, called Silver’s regime “a virtual dictatorship.”

Bragman’s motion was defeated 85-63, but Silver remained closeted in his office throughout the debate.

“We lost this battle, and some of us took it on the chin personally,” said Luster. “But we’re going to hang in there to push for these reforms. I am getting calls from members to thank me for what I’m doing, saying, ‘We’re with you in spirit,’ ” said Luster.