Shelly Silver has a figure of speech he likes to tell people up in Albany—that if you don’t like the way a table is set, just wait. Maybe it will start to look differently after a while. Maybe the people around it will change. Maybe you’ll change your mind, and start liking the looks of it after all.
The way the table was set this year became clear on the very first day of the legislative session, when lawmakers descended on the Capitol for day one of the Andrew Cuomo-era. The newly-minted governor, fresh-off a commanding election margin, had been calling for a new spirit of bi-partisan cooperation, encouraging lawmakers to slough off their reputation for dysfunction and begin to get something done.
Mr. Silver, who had been presiding over the State Assembly since Cuomo’s father Mario was governor, echoed the call. “Can we make this place work, together? My answer is yes!” One of the remaining liberal lions in the New Deal mode, Silver ceded considerable ideological ground, calling for a property tax cap and announcing that “unquestionably, we must work together to reduce state spending.”
“So that there is no doubt, I will say this one more time. The Assembly is ready and willing to work with the Governor and with our colleagues in the Senate to fully address New York’s economic challenges and to restore faith in our government,” Mr. Silver announced.
Then Assembly Speaker’s Senate counterpart, Republican majority leader Dean Skelos stood up. It was reasonable to expect that he would make the same gesture, conceding past overreach, pledging to work together with Democrats.
But instead, Mr. Skelos threw red meat to a newly emboldened right-wing insurgency that had swept into office in the Tea Party wave of 2010, calling for “cuts, restraint and sacrifice,” trumpeting his own party’s record, and decrying that “government thinks it knows best how to spend your money, how to run your business and how to conduct your life.”
“We did not always have a partner in our plans to cut spending and taxes and create jobs,” he added, before making a slight concession: “But from what I have heard from Governor Cuomo and Speaker Silver – today I believe we do.”
“He made a political speech. I made a governing speech,” Mr. Silver said in an interview last month. He was sitting in a conference room in his office in downtown Manhattan. Out the window 1 World Trade Center inched steadily onward towards completion, something that may never have happened had Mr. Silver not been Speaker during the attacks, and not righted the Ground Zero rebuilding effort as it was careening off the rails.
“He said, ‘We Republicans did this, we did that, we always said this, we always said that.’” Mr. Silver said in his almost inaudibly quiet Lower East Side monotone. “I’ve dealt with enough Republicans to know that they want to spend money more than anybody else. They just don’t want to pay for it. We have the old joke that they will always back the dump truck up on the budget on the last few days [of budget negotiations.] ‘Oh, one more thing—I need a hundred million for this or a hundred million for that.’ They can spend as well or better than any Democrat I ever saw.”
Needless to say, the comity didn’t last. But from the beginning Mr. Skelos’ power move made it seem like Mr. Silver was out of the loop, that the three men in a room were down to two. The centrist governor wined and dined each of the Senate Republicans—whose razor thin majority gave each member effective veto power on any legislation—assuming that Mr. Silver could bring his Assembly Democrats along with whatever the two of them decided, including painful cuts to the social safety net and the expiration of a tax on upper-income earners, galling policy prescriptions for someone like Mr. Silver, who kept the Democratic flame alive during the reign of George Pataki and Joe Bruno in the 1990s.
“The governor came in with a big victory and he had an agenda, and he tried to align that agenda with the Senate Republicans,” said David Catalfamo, a Republican strategist and veteran of the Pataki administration. “Shelly has to get used to the fact that he is no longer the head of the Democratic Party in New York State—Cuomo is. The playbook changed.”
In fact, Mr. Silver seemed to be shunted to the side even before Mr. Cuomo assumed office, with some of Mr. Cuomo’s aides making a series of well-timed leaks designed to make sure the Speaker didn’t get too comfortable.
As far back as May, six months before Mr. Cuomo was even elected, the papers were running stories with blind quotes from “top Cuomo officials” signaling that Mr. Cuomo would look to take out the Speaker the following year. Asked point-blank after the election if he had a message for Mr. Silver, Mr. Cuomo responded, “I’m looking forward to working with the leadership of the Assembly,” declining to mention the Speaker by name.
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