The fall of the house of Silver

January 29, 2015

The indictment of State Assembly Sheldon Silver reveals how deeply liberals like Bill de Blasio and the Working Families Party are ensnared in the corruption of New York politics, writes veteran activist and WBAI radio co-host Sandy Boyer.

NEW YORK'S liberal Democratic Party establishment is in full-fledged panic mode because a corrupt politician has been indicted for taking million-dollar payoffs. Their problem is that the politician is Sheldon (Shelly) Silver, the powerful speaker of the New York State Assembly.

For 21 years, he has been the liberals' great protector in state government. This year, they've been counting on him to save public education and affordable housing.

Silver has been essential because New York politicians perform an elaborate dance every year: Democrats in the Assembly pass progressive bills on things like affordable housing, minimum wage and education. Republicans in the state Senate reply with legislation dictated by landlords, big business and charter schools. By the end of the term, nothing of any importance has been accomplished.

Then everything is decided by "three men in a room"--the governor, the Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker. They go behind closed doors to cut an overall deal and tell legislators what to pass--often without even giving lawmakers time to read the legislation.

Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves the courthouse
Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves the courthouse

That's where the liberals depend on Shelly Silver to come riding to the rescue. They know that the Republicans will push a Tea Party agenda and that Gov. Andrew Cuomo--with one eye on the White House--will promote a "moderate" pro-business agenda. When he wants to, Silver can deliver at least a few crumbs from the table by refusing to let the Assembly vote on anything until he signs off on the whole deal.

Silver delivers less every year. Last year, for example, he agreed to a bill that forced New York City to give charter schools free space in public schools, or give them rent subsidies instead. Yet liberals still see the speaker as their only hope, telling themselves that without Shelly, they would get nothing at all.

That's why they let out anguished moans when Silver's indictment was announced. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the darling of the Democratic Party's liberal wing, embarrassed himself by announcing, "I've always known Shelly Silver to be a man of integrity."

Bill Lipton, the chair of the Working Families Party, which exists to be a pressure group on the Democrats from the left, intoned, "When it comes to the issues that matter to working families...Shelly Silver never flinches."

NEW YORK'S liberals are so deeply embedded in their support for the Democratic Party that they can't even oppose its systematic corruption. Shelly Silver wasn't the only politician taking money from business interests.

Leonard Litwin, the real estate tycoon who was caught bribing Silver, was also the largest donor to Andrew Cuomo, Comptroller Tom Di Napoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Di Blasio and the Working Families Party endorsed all of them.

Now the liberals' worst nightmare has come true--the Assembly Democrats have dumped Silver. An anonymous "Democratic operative" told the New York Observer, "He [de Blasio] needed Shelly to be strong on the rent laws fight, to stand with teachers' unions to push back on Cuomo's pro-charter school crusade, and to occupy the left flank on other issues, too. If Shelly is ousted, de Blasio is much weaker politically in Albany, and that will surely be to Cuomo's diabolical delight."

As this article was being written, Assembly Democrats were squabbling over who will take Silver's place. Until February 10, the interim speaker will be Joseph Morelle, a Rochester Democrat seen as having even closer ties to business interests than Silver.

Regardless of how things eventually shake out, Silver's successor will almost certainly be much weaker in the annual negotiations with Cuomo and the Senate Republicans.

For 21 years, Silver has held the Democratic caucus together with a combination of rewards and punishments, while lawmakers passed whatever Shelly told them to pass. Now that he's gone, the Assembly Democrats are likely to descend into fights between representatives of New York City, upstate communities and the suburbs.

That could enable Cuomo and the Senate Republicans to cripple public education and make affordable housing in New York City as dead as the nickel fare on the subway.

Cuomo wants to make it easier to fire teachers and to abolish the limit on the number of charter schools. He's also proposing to give parents a tax break when they send their children to private or parochial schools. Needless to say, the Republicans think these are marvelous ideas.

The New York City rent laws will expire in June unless they are renewed. Rent regulation is the only thing that keeps housing affordable in New York City and, to a lesser extent, in its suburban counties. Almost half of New York City housing is rent-regulated. If rent regulation dies, landlords will be able to charge market rents, which virtually no working New Yorkers can afford.

Dean Skelos, the leader of the Senate Republicans, says that if rent regulation can't be crippled, it should be allowed to expire. Cuomo, who received millions of dollars in campaign contributions from landlords like Leonard Litwin, is already responsible for the loss of 50,000 affordable rent-regulated apartments every year.

NOW, NO one will be able to count on Shelly Silver to preserve public education or affordable housing. They're only likely to be saved by mobilizing tens of thousands of people throughout New York City and the state--something de Blasio and the liberals have consistently refused to do.

We can't go on pleading with Democratic politicians. They should be told in no uncertain terms that unless public education and rent regulation are preserved and strengthened, they'll be out of office.

It's past time for tenants and teachers to join forces. After all, teachers are tenants, and tenants send their children to public schools. The governor and the legislators need to know that they can't play one side off against the other. That alliance would help us build an even more powerful movement. Affordable housing and decent schools are just as essential to working class New Yorkers as a $15 an hour minimum wage, and they are natural demands for the movement asserting that Black Lives Matter.

Time is short, and victory is far from certain. But the stakes are high, and if we don't fight now, we're sure to lose.

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