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Commentary & Opinion
Tue September 4, 2012
Liz Benjamin - Gropegate Follows Assembly Speaker Silver to DNC
They say that wherever you go, you take your problems with you.
That's certainly true for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was unable to escape the clutches of the so-called Gropegate scandal when he arrived here in Charlotte, North Carolina yesterday to assume his role as head of the New York delegation at the Democratic National Convention.
Within hours of touching down in the Queen City, Silver sat down for several extended interviews to discuss the mess.
Not exactly an ideal way to kick off what was supposed to be a stress free week full of positive headlines.
All the talk in advance of Silver's first, highly anticipated public appearance since the scandal broke had been of his botched handling of the sexual harassment allegations that are close to bringing down Assemblyman Vito Lopez, one of New York’s last old-school political bosses.
Lopez’s alleged physical and verbal harassment of young female staffers - accusations of which he insists he’s innocent - have already gotten him censured and cost him both his Assembly Housing Committee chairmanship and post as Brooklyn Democratic leader.
Critics continue to call for his resignation from the Legislature. Silver revealed yesterday that he had himself had urged Lopez to step down and got no response from the embattled assemblyman.
But cooler heads note it's too late to remove Lopez’s name form the ballot, and he's likely to be re-elected in spite of this mess since he's facing only nominal opposition from a Republican opponent.
That suggests a post-election resignation would be much more logical, not to mention effective.
So, Lopez is more or less history at this point, even though a criminal probe by the Staten Island district attorney and investigation by Albany's ethics watchdog JCOPE have yet to get underway.
The focus has increasingly turned to Silver and whether he will be able to survive this scandal with his speakership in tact.
The general consensus is yes, although he might be considerably weakened.
The speaker's ability to weather the storm assumes several key points:
- No other revelations emerge about the secret settlement using taxpayer dollars that Silver negotiated with two female staffers who accused Lopez of sexual harassment BEFORE two additional accusations were made and, unlike the first complaints, were referred to the bipartisan ethics committee for review.
- Members of the Assembly Democratic conference, who hold the only votes that matter to Silver when it comes to retaining his title of speaker, don't turn on him.
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo doesn't decide life in Albany would be better off without the Capitol's current longest-serving legislative leader.
Silver's office says there are no more surprises when it comes to the Lopez harassment settlement, and that it was the first and only one of its kind.
Several sources insist the speaker actually welcomes JCOPE's review because it will reveal the detailed involvement of state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who both signed off on the settlement, plus details of the very high initial cash demand – just over $1 million - from Lopez's accusers.
That could make it seem the women, represented by high profile Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who is also here in Charlotte, were only out for money and the state got off easy with its $100,000 payout.
As for loyalty for Silver within the Democratic conference, it's certainly not as strong as it once was.
More than a third of the majority's members have been elected since 2006 and don't feel as beholden to Silver as the more senior members do.
Plus, another wave of newbies is headed to Albany after the November election, thanks to a spate of high-profile retirements by aging Democratic lawmakers and decisions by ambitious youngsters to seek their political fortunes elsewhere.
There has been chatter here in Charlotte about a possible coup attempt, which hasn't happened since Silver survived former Assemblyman Mike Bragman's challenge back in 2000.
But the mechanics of a coup are tricky, and you can't beat a still powerful - if wounded - someone with no one. A consensus candidate to replace Silver has yet to emerge.
The real problem for Silver is that the Lopez scandal has reduced his chances of landing a long-awaited pay raise for his members - something the downstaters in particular want very much.
And that's where Cuomo comes in.
The governor has made it clear the legislative raises will now come at a higher price for Silver, thought it's yet unclear what that might be.
Cuomo needs the raise, too, remember. His commissioners' salaries are tied to those of the Legislature, and top administration members - the governor included - haven't seen their pay increase since the 36 percent hike back in 1999.
Also keeping Silver around, especially in his weakened state, could very well benefit Cuomo, perhaps even more so than trying to replace him outright, which could get messy and backfire.
As one Assembly Democrat told me:
"I think Andrew wants leverage so he can get what Andrew wants."
"Wouldn’t the governor rather have a wounded speaker to continue to work with?…That’s what I would want: A wounded, less influential, less powerful speaker who can round up votes, but can’t push back."
Commentary & Opinion