For 21 years, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was the most powerful man in New York. Now he’s a convicted felon. But is real reform possible in a place as broken as Albany?
New York State is an outstanding example of the politician-to-prison pipeline. The most recent case in point is Sheldon Silver, who “served” in the New York State Assembly from 1977 to 2015. For much of that time Silver was “of counsel” to the law firm of Weitz and Luxemburg, which figured prominently in his recent conviction for seven counts of felonies. Silver saw to it that judges favorable to Weitz and Luxemburg presided over the firm’s mesothelioma-related lawsuits. He also steered state grants for cancer research to an M.D. who in return sent his firm clients.
While Silver was dominating the Assembly [from 1994 to 2015], the last five Senate Majority Leaders—three Republicans and two Democrats—were removed from office for criminal activities.
Silver first took office when he was installed by Frank Rossetti, one of the last bosses of Tammany Hall, to fill the seat vacated by Anthony DiFalco.DiFalco himself was no stranger to mixing his assembly seat and law practice. As journalist Wayne Barrett notes, DiFalco’s father, Surrogate Judge Sam DiFalco, “was already under indictment and would soon be indicted again, charged with fixing cases for Anthony’s law firm.”
Since 2000, 33 members of the state legislature in both the Assembly dominated by Dems and the State Senate ruled by Republicans have “earned” criminal indictment. But the situation in the upper chamber, the State Senate, is perhaps even sorrier than the state assembly that Silver ruled as Speaker from 1994 to 2015. While Silver was dominating the Assembly, the last five Senate Majority Leaders—three Republicans and two Democrats—were removed from office for criminal activities.
Under the distinctly non-democratic form of government in New York, the state is run by the triopoly of “three men in a room.” Without any pretense of conventional legislative procedure, the Governor, the Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate Majority leader meet to decide among themselves how the tax booty is to be apportioned.
The Speaker and majority leader have at their disposal slush funds, so called “member items” to bribe their supporters. The member monies are dispersed with no pretext of oversight or accountability. For his part, the governor has the vast apparatus of the state’s numerous public authorities, many of which have the independent power to raise money though bond issues, to dispense patronage positions.
Roughly a third of [New York State] legislators face no opponent in either the primary or general election, and half face no opposition or merely token opposition in the general election.
Few people outside of public employees and the relatives of the candidates pay attention pay to the functionally uncontested legislative elections. In the many districts dominated by just one party, the seats are won with tiny turnouts in the primaries. Members of the legislature, if they chose to continue in office, are re-elected 98 percent of the time. Roughly a third of the legislators face no opponent in either the primary or general election, and half face no opposition or merely token opposition in the general election.
In 2008, for instance, Silver, a Democrat, was “re-elected” —it’s more like reappointed—with 100 percent of the votes. There hasn’t been a single Republican elected official of any sort on the local, state or federal level in Manhattan in the last decade. Once districts are gerrymandered "safe" for one party or another, explains political scientist Angelo Codevilla, “the voters therein count less because party leaders can count more on elected legislators to toe the party line.”
On the rare occasion when one of my neighbors in Brooklyn pays attention to state legislative elections, the question I’m most often asked is given that “the three men in a room run the state, what do these guy do.” The answer is not much. Until relatively recently members of the assembly could vote in absentia. But beyond the pro forma procedures, members of the legislature don’t so much as represent their district to Albany as represent the welfare, health care and regulatory bureaucracies to their district.
So what’s to be done to fix all this? The calls for reform that have come from Silver’s removal are predictably beside the point. Seth Lipsky, editor of the New York Sun, noted that Silver “hasn’t even been sentenced yet, and already the left is plumping for public financing of elections.” But Sheldon Silver duplicity didn’t have anything to with the need to raise campaign crash. In fact, Silver has been a strong supporter of the public financing of elections.
Wall Street is both a blessing and a curse... State and local policies are of scant interest to people who operate on a global scale.
There are also calls for professionalizing the legislature by making what is now a part-time job a full-time job. But the Legislature is in session for just half a week for roughly half the year. Further making this charade into a supposedly full time job would not only line the pockets of party hacks, it would do nothing to increase electoral competition.
And New York’ s problems are much more than procedural. Far and away the greatest source of the state’s fiscal honey pot is Manhattan’s financial industry, which is booming thanks to the Feds insistence on artificially low interest rates. But Wall Street is both a blessing and a curse. The financial industry, which (thanks to the internet) is increasingly dispersed, doesn’t depend on the states schools or roads or the local labor force. State and local policies are of scant interest to people who operate on a global scale.
Once upon a time the manufacturing of upstate New York provided a counterbalance to Manhattan liberalism. But now the city has swallowed much of the state. Upstate has been in steep decline for forty years. Forced to adapt, bordering states like Pennsylvania and Ohio have both welcomed the bounty producing by fracking for natural gas. Not so New York, as upstate is increasingly defined by state employees and the owners of second homes owned by wealthy Manhattanites who don’t want anything to ruin their view.
Silver has been replaced as Speaker by Carl Heastie of the Bronx,who is no stranger to scandal himself. With the system as broken as it is, Heastie will likely bring more of the same, including a continued stream of poorly written and sorrowfully argued New York Times editorials lecturing the peasants on the need for public financing of elections.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Beast.