ALBANY – If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was hoping a report that he’s working on a coup attempt against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver would start a fire, he was correct.
But the fire has been lit under the governor.
While the Governor’s Office denied that it is working to oust Silver, as the New York Post reported Monday, lawmakers in Silver’s conference were quickly rallying to the Manhattan Democrat’s defense.
Suspicion that the executive branch may be acting against a leader of the legislative branch is dangerous for a governor with an unfinished agenda and declining poll numbers.
At risk, lawmakers and political insiders said Monday, is Cuomo’s agenda for the rest of the 2013 session because Silver and his Assembly Democrats have been most supportive of some of Cuomo’s key policy initiatives, from gun control to the minimum-wage increase to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
The Post, citing unnamed sources close to Cuomo, reported that the governor wants Silver out because he has been in power for so long. During Silver’s 19 years as speaker, the Legislature has endured a number of scandals, including two new ones last week involving a Senate Democrat and two Assembly Democrats.
The Post, which has been a regular recipient of leaks over the last two years by the Cuomo administration, reported that the Democratic governor also was dangling the prospect of a legislative pay raise but did not mention any concerns Cuomo has about leadership in the Senate, which has seen its own rash of corruption scandals – and jail terms for lawmakers – in recent years.
“The governor needs the speaker in place, but he also needs some means of dealing with the corruption scandals,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic consultant. The latest scandals have come while Cuomo is trying to make a name for himself on the national political stage on the theme that he has cleaned up Albany.
But going after a legislative leader, unless Cuomo has access to information not yet made public, has political risks.
In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer saw that when he tried to block then-Assemblyman Thomas P. DiNapoli from becoming state comptroller. Assembly Democrats brushed aside Spitzer and voted DiNapoli into the office, and it was the beginning of the end of Spitzer’s influence with fellow Democrats in the Assembly.
“Whoever did this this morning did the governor no service, because now the Assembly will gather around the speaker,” Sheinkopf said of the Post article. “Attacking the speaker is not a good move. It’s not the governor; it’s those around him who are probably doing this, and they will all have to come together and come up with a better strategy to deal with corruption issues because this is not going to work.
“All it will do is harden the Assembly against the governor, and he needs the Assembly.’’
Rank-and-file lawmakers were not thrilled with the developments.
“I don’t think there’s a role for the governor making decisions about who Assembly members choose for their leadership. I think the governor’s role is to manage the administration,” said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo.
Silver, 69, was re-elected earlier this year as Assembly speaker, a post he has held since 1994. “I think the view of the Democratic conference is Shelly is a very capable and able leader. I don’t see anybody stepping up to the plate to say, ‘I want to be speaker.’ I’ve not even sensed the inkling of anybody interested in becoming speaker,” Peoples-Stokes said.
“I haven’t observed any diminution in the respect that so many members hold for him,” said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore.
A veteran lawmaker who helped Cuomo push through the gun-control bill this year called the story about Cuomo leading a coup against Silver “implausible.”
“It just doesn’t make sense,” said Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, D-Brooklyn.
“I think Shelly is in very good standing with members,” Lentol added, noting that the Post report “probably helped Shelly” in the end.
Cuomo and Silver have enjoyed a hot-and-cold relationship. Silver had battled with Govs. Mario M. Cuomo, George E. Pataki, Spitzer and David A. Paterson long before the younger Cuomo was elected to the office once held by his father. Lawmakers say the current governor, like some before him who never served in a legislative body, does not fully understand or appreciate the circle-the-wagons approach when members of the Legislature feel threatened by the executive branch.
Cuomo administration officials, speaking on condition that their names not be used, were adamant in saying the Post report about Cuomo moving against Silver was “100 percent not true.”
But Cuomo, in an interview on a public radio program Monday, did not directly answer the question when asked whether he had conversations over the weekend about Silver and whether he wanted to work with a different leader. The Post said Cuomo was comfortable with the prospect of Assembly Majority Joseph D. Morelle, D-Rochester, as successor to Silver. But the idea of an upstate Democrat becoming Assembly speaker is far-fetched, lawmakers say, and the report about Cuomo wanting Morelle was already upsetting some New York City African-American lawmakers with ambitions to become speaker.
In the radio interview, Cuomo called Silver his “partner” in government.
“It is wholly up to the legislative bodies to select a leader. I would never even for a moment try to influence that decision, and again in this case I don’t see what the speaker had to do with any of these purely personal, individual acts by two Assembly people,” Cuomo said of the corruption case involving two Assembly Democrats from New York City.
But Cuomo did confirm a number of elements in the Post report, such as his new interest in getting a sweeping package of bills to address everything from the power of party leaders in getting politicians onto ballots to campaign finance rules that favor incumbents to lax enforcement of campaign finance and other laws by boards of election. He offered no specific plan, but also did not rule out the use of a Moreland Act Commission, a panel appointed by governors with sweeping legal powers; he did not say why or how such a commission would come together.
“We have a moment where we can bring change,” Cuomo said of using the latest corruption cases to enact new laws in New York.
It is uncertain whether Cuomo would have the political power to take out Silver. As his poll numbers have slid, more Democratic lawmakers have been grumbling about him. The Democratic caucus in the Assembly is fairly well split along geographic, political, gender and racial lines, and Silver has mastered the art of moving between the various factions and rewarding key lawmakers with choice committee assignments and policy victories.
But all these issues are pointless, the Cuomo administration would say. An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Silver’s name never even came up in conversations over the weekend about an anti-corruption push. “Nothing was discussed this weekend,” the official said, “including anything disparaging about the leadership of either house.”