Here’s How Sheldon Silver First Became One of the Most Powerful People in New York


Silver in 2013

Sheldon Silver’s days as Speaker of the New York State Assembly could be numbered following his arrest on January 22 on charges of massive corruption and graft, into the millions of dollars.

But in 1994, when he was voted into the assembly’s highest seat under strange circumstances, it was done with a quickness that alluded to his propensity for making deals and doing favors in Albany.

In February 1994, the 49-year-old Silver was elected to the legislature’s highest office, summarily dispatching three other candidates. The last holdout was Canarsie-based assemblyman Tony Genovesi (who died in a car wreck just four years later). Genovesi was “too junior” and hadn’t done enough favors, said Norman Adler, then a political consultant, who’d made news himself in 1987 when he shoved a New York Post reporter to the ground while serving as aide to corrupt assembly Speaker Mel Miller.

Silver’s predecessor in the Speaker’s chair was 66-year-old Saul Weprin, who suffered an incapacitating stroke in January of ’94. Weprin died a few weeks later. Wrote Voice staffer Michael Tomasky at the time: “With all the morbid agility of someone scouring the Times obituaries for a vacant apartment, the state assembly wasted no time stepping over Speaker Saul Weprin’s comatose body to elect his successor.”

So, after serving in the state assembly for eighteen years (he was first elected in 1976), Silver was chosen to lead it, a position he still held today as he turned himself in on federal corruption charges. As he strode into 26 Federal Plaza, Silver reportedly remarked, “I hope I’ll be vindicated.” The allegations against Silver, now 70, involve his acceptance of substantial payments from the small law firm Goldberg & Iryami without reporting them to the state.

The man who led the investigation that resulted in Thursday’s arrest, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, was a 26-year-old lawyer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher when Silver acceded to the chair.

There’s a 1 p.m. press conference planned for today, at which Bharara is expected to go into detail about the investigation.

Here’s the full piece by Tomasky, from the February 1, 1994, issue of the Voice, which also gets into the big housing issue of the day — integrating the Lower East Side’s then predominantly white and Jewish projects — and includes a quote from Scott Stringer, then an Upper West Side assemblyman and now New York City comptroller.

By Michael Tomasky
February 1, 1994
The Village Voice
With all the morbid agility of someone scouring the Times obituaries for a vacant apartment, the state assembly wasted no time stepping over Speaker Saul Weprin’s comatose body to elect his successor.

Of course, there was no choice in the matter. When news came last Thursday that Weprin, who’d been speaker for two years and change, had suffered an incapacitating stroke, the assembly was forced to move quickly to elevate Lower East Side assemblyman Sheldon Silver to the speaker’s post, pending Weprin’s recovery, or to be blunt, death.

Silver—whose liberal voting record in Albany is rather at odds with the role he plays in the trench wars of the Lower East Side—faced competition initially, but he worked quietly to line up the backing of both upstate centrists and Manhattan liberals. So what had seemed like a mad scramble among four contenders reduced itself with lightning speed to a coronation. “We may have many faults,” says Harlem assemblyman Denny Farrell, “but one thing we are is that we’re all good counters, and it was clear to everybody by Thursday that Shelly had the votes.”

“The only competitor left by last Thursday, Brooklyn assemblyman Tony Genovesi, did some grumbling about the process but eventually pulled his name out of contention. Genovesi’s bid was weak enough that he barely had the support of half of the Brooklyn delegation, and if you ca’t get a better foothold than that in your own borough, you’re going nowhere. “Tony was never in the race,” says political consultant Norman Adler. “First he’s too junior, and second, he didn’t come from a senior committee, and when you don’t come from a senior committee, you haven’t done enough favors for anybody to owe you.”

Technically, Silver is the acting speaker. If Weprin can at some point reassume the speaker’s duties — and by Sunday night he was reportedly able to communicate for the first time since suffering the stroke last Tuesday — he will return to work, and Silver will have to settle for continuing as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Silver will retain that chairmanship until Weprin’s condition is resolved one way or the other, so hypothetically, Silver could spend several weeks, even months, serving as both the acting speaker and the chair of one of the assembly’s most powerful committees.

In Silver, the assembly gets a leader invariably described by friends and foes as smart — even “intellectual” and “cerebral” — and someone who, at 49, will undoubtedly have more zest for the job than Weprin, who at 66 had been ill for some time even before his recent troubles. It will also get a person who, so far, has managed the maintain his two political identities: In Albany, Silver still has a reputation as a Manhattan liberal, his support for the death penalty notwithstanding; on the Lower East Side, he’s pegged as a conservative, and someone who, serving his base constituency of elderly Jewish tenants in the large housing projects along Grand Street, has done nothing to help integrate a neighborhood that has so dramatically changed color over the last 20 years.

Greenwich Village assemblywoman Deborah Glick would seem an unlikely ally of Silver. In the the heated Village political battles of the 1980s, Glick and Silver were always on opposite sides, almost always supporting different candidates for small offices like district leaderships, state committee posts, and civil-court judgeships. But Glick, who announced her support for Silver last Thursday night, has only praise for him.

“He actually has good positions on most issues that I care about, and he’s been extremely warm and welcoming from the day I arrived,” Glick says. “True, we have not always supported the same people, but unlike some other people with whom that might be problematic, it’s never been a bar to us working together.”

Upper West Side assemblyman Scott Stringer thinks Manhattan may benefit from having a native in the speaker’s chair. “I think it means we’ll have someone who’ll listen to our delegation,” he says.

Glick and Stringer are both echoing an Albany perspective, but what the Albany perspective misses is Silver’s place in Lower East Side politics over the years. There, he’s respected for his brains but seen as a decidedly conservative presence.

Former councilwoman Miriam Friedlander crossed swords with Silver on many occasions, mostly over housing-integration issues. Friedlander and others fought for years to bring blacks an Latinos into the huge and largely Jewish housing rejects down near the Williamsburg Bridge. Silver, an Orthodox Jew himself, invariably defended his Jewish base. Friedlander, in turn, suffered greatly at the pools for this, finally losing her City Council seat in 1989 when Antonio Pagan, a somewhat conservative Latino, defeated her with Silver’s help. (Such are the ironies of empowerment.) “I think you’ll find,” says Friedlander, “that he represented the growing trend in the city and possibly the state to move to the right and to emphasize the rights of the quote middle class, which is fine expect when set against the rights of the poor, as is often the case.”

Frances Goldin of the Lower East Side Join Planing Council, and umbrella organization of about 35 housing, religious, and other groups, respects Silver. “I think he’s smart, he’s very hardworking, and he’s honest” Goldin says. “He’s not one of these no-show guys, and that’s why he’s powerful.”

But, she adds, Silver has always stood against integration of the Lower East Side projects. The JPC, along with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, spent 10 years in court trying to integrate the Grand Street Cooperatives, a 4,500-unit project along Delancey Street that was 1 percent minority when the suit was filed. Six years ago, the JPC won a settlement under which every other apartment vacated had to go to a black or Latino tenant. Silver, she says, was always on the other side.

Today, the JPC is trying to develop an extension to the Seward Park Houses. The new projects would be aimed at different income levels and racially mixed. “But Shelly’s been against it,” Golding says. “Blacks and Puerto Ricans and Jews can sit down and talk on the Lower East Side. Shelly has never facilitated that. He has blocked it.”

The one place that Silver may be weakening, oddly enough, is within his district. As the Jewish population ages, the influence of Grand Street is, however slowly, waning. Further, in the the 1992 re-districting, his district swung around to the west to pick up more liberal areas of Tribeca and Battery Park City. “His Achilles heel is his district,” says a Lower East Side politico. “If a Jewish person from Battery Park City who was attractive and articulate ran, that person could take Shelly out.” But right now, Shelly’s in, in a big way.