As he admits “mistakes were made” in the decision to quietly pay out a six-figure sum to two women claiming harassment by a powerful Brooklyn assemblyman, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is riding out the storm while attending the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week.
On Monday night, Silver, one of the nation’s most prominent Orthodox politicians and a major backer in Albany of the state’s Jewish communal organizations, managed to find a kosher restaurant in Charlotte and hosted a reception there for his conference members, who have a wide majority in the Assembly.
As some 200 people including legislators and staff dined on matzah ball soup, knishes and steaks and sipped wine at Glieberman’s Kosher Mart and Restaurant, Silver did not mention the controversy directly but thanked his members for their support, said one of the participants, Assemblyman David Weprin of Queens.
“The consensus was that everyone strongly supported the speaker,” said Weprin. “Whatever he did, he acted on advice of the attorneys.”
Although the revelations regarding Vito Lopez of Brooklyn may have harmed Silver’s reputation, few expect any major consequence.
Despite calls from some Republicans for his resignation as speaker, that’s an unlikely scenario since he has retained tight control over his conference in more than 18 years as speaker, and particularly since a coup attempt in 2000.
“Members of the Assembly support his continued leadership,” said longtime political scientist Gerald Benjamin of SUNY-New Paltz. “He has indicated that he will proceed differently if any circumstances like this arise in the future.”
The Lower East Side Democrat, 68, last week announced that he would censure Lopez because of credible reports investigated by the ethics committee that the Brooklyn powerhouse, who chairs the county Democratic organization there, groped and kissed female staff members. Lopez was stripped of the chair of the housing committee, a position that put him in close cooperation with leaders of Williamsburg’s chasidic community, with whom he has had a tense relationship in the past over scarce public housing in the area he represents.
Revelations soon followed that earlier this year two other complaints had surfaced that were not referred to the Assembly ethics committee, and that the state paid two women who brought the complaints $103,080 in settlement funds.
Silver acknowledged last week that he was wrong to keep those allegations quiet, even as he insisted it was done in consultation with representatives of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
Prominent anti-discrimination attorney Gloria Allred, who represents one of the women, has insisted publicly that the settlement and its confidentially agreement did not preclude the Assembly from referring the matter to the ethics committee.
“I take full responsibility in not insisting that all cases go to the ethics committee,” Silver said in a public statement. “While that opinion is both legally correct and ethical and can result in a resolution sought by complaining employees, I now believe it was the wrong one from the perspective of transparency.”
Silver did not respond to a call for comment as of press time Tuesday.
Silver has in the past been criticized for his handling of 2001 allegations by an Assembly staff member who said she was sexually assaulted by a top legal aide to Silver, Michael Boxley. No charges were brought then against Boxley, who in 2003 was charged with raping another woman. (He pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct and resigned from his job, but avoided jail).
The state’s Joint Committee on Public Ethics (JCOPE) met Tuesday to decide whether to probe the Lopez matter at the request of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. No conclusion was reached. The 14-member panel is chaired by Janet DiFiore, the Westchester district attorney.
But it’s unlikely those dissatisfied with Silver’s rule will try to take the opportunity to stage another coup.
“They may see an opportunity, but after an assessment they will make a determination that it’s not a good opportunity,” said Benjamin, who is director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at SUNY New Paltz. “That’s already evident in the comments the members have made in the media.”
Silver, it has been reported, has $2.8 million in his political war chest and has spent almost $200,000 backing Democrats in races that could help increase his already wide 51-seat majority.
“Shelly provides the best leadership for all of us; no one comes close,” said one Silver backer, Assemblyman Steve Cymbrowitz of Brooklyn. “The fact that he admitted there should be a change in the way these kinds of issues are dealt with satisfies me and many others. Matters like this have to go to the ethics committee, and that’s a good change.”
But even some of those supporting Silver said the incident left them uncomfortable.
“As a father of two daughters, this is very upsetting to me,” said Alec Brook Krasny, another Assembly Democrat from Brooklyn. “Frankly, I didn’t even know the Assembly could pay to settle things like this.” In the end, though, “Shelly was trying to protect his member, and the investigation will show all of us what the consequences will be. He will be a stronger leader from this situation.”
Silver faces no challenger in next week’s primary election and only token Republican opposition in the general campaign, as is generally the case, and has proven himself a quintessential political survivor as rivals have come and gone from the statehouse.
“He remains rooted in his district and has served it well,” said Benjamin. “A sitting leader is very hard to challenge.”
Another political insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited an old political adage: “If you’re going to try to kill the king, make sure you kill the king.” A surviving leader can exact retribution on upstarts, as Michael Bragman, a former Silver ally from Syracuse learned in 2000 when he led the unsuccessful coup. He and his backers were stripped of leadership positions. He later lost his re-election bid in a changed district.
Benjamin said that while Silver and Cuomo, who called for the JCOPE investigation, may not have a warm relationship, Cuomo has no interest in deposing Silver since he prides himself on smooth operation of the state government.
“He has a leader who can deliver the goods and [Cuomo] has a lot to do,” said Benjamin. “And he doesn’t know what he’s going to get [if Silver falls.]”