It’s Time to End Sheldon Silver’s Reign of Shame, Part I [OP-ED]
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Sheldon Silver’s puppet show, Photo: Art Y.R. Minor
With his power gutted in Albany, ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has returned home. He is popping up everywhere on the Lower East Side these days, from Lunar New Year celebrations to award ceremonies and ribbon cuttings. These high-profile maneuvers are a calculated effort to whitewash his recent indictment on federal corruption charges in order to maintain a foothold in his Manhattan district.
Silver and his team of lawyers are going to great lengths to profess his innocence and assure his constituents that in an Albany knee-deep in corruption, he will come out clean. Yet, for the first time, Silver sits exposed, finally dragging the 65th Assembly District out of the shadowed cover of his despotic rule.
His long political history is one of promoting division, doling out favors based on patronage, exacting revenge, and advancing the careers of his inner-circle political hacks. Put another way, he served the 65th Assembly District like a mafia don lining his pockets, controlling his captains and amassing unprecedented power while hiding behind the public personae of a modest liberal defender of the people.
As Silver advanced politically, he appointed judges and handed out high-profile jobs, most often to less-than-qualified cronies within his inner circle. He doled out discretionary funds to local not-for-profits supportive of him, and propped up insular organizations like the Lower East Side BID. He steered disreputable Lower East Side landlords to arcane real estate assessment tax breaks and outmaneuvered the court-mandated racial integration of affordable housing by privatizing the co-ops on Grand Street. And while he was paying lip service to constituents vis-à-vis affordable housing and working for the middle class, he pushed through luxury development in Lower Manhattan that favored a menagerie of wealthy and powerful developers.
While Silver was fleecing his constituency, many of whom could least afford to be taken advantage of, he was simultaneously diluting the progressive values and principles of New York City voters, all in effort to grow and retain his power in Albany. He shared a quid pro quo political arrangement (Albany’s back-room politics known as “three men in a room”), which emboldened the control-obsessed Governor and preserved the status quo, while maintaining the respective majorities in the legislative houses, the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led Assembly. Silver’s liberal masquerade camouflaged years of autocratic rule that kept his democratic colleagues in lock-step, yielding him immense power that short-changed New York City voters and left him unchecked and immune to accountability from scandal after scandal.
Finally, we are seeing Silver for what he really is: just another crooked politician taking bribes and serving as battering ram for wealthy campaign contributors, real estate developers, special interests, and his posse of personal cronies. In the annals of New York politics, Silver’s legacy will be plagued by levels of corruption, divisiveness and cronyism that would shame even FIFA.
If convicted of bribery, kickbacks, and extortion as expected, it will confirm what we all have known – that democracy was routinely and methodically subverted in the 65th Assembly District under Silver and his collection of political hacks. Unfortunately, prominent among the latter are Councilmember Chin, whom he has shared a mutually beneficial relationship in vote-rich Chinatown, and the polarizing and divisive Community Board 3 District Manager, Susan Stetzer.
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Flyer campaign from 2012, Photo: EV Grieve
As his trial date looms, Silver and his political allies are not hiding their plans for the future of the 65th Assembly District. While Silver is peddling his influence quietly, Councilwoman Chin is publicly backing CB3 Chair Li in her run for District Leader against incumbent Jenifer Rajkumar.
Li’s bid for District Leader has little do with serving with integrity in an unpaid post representing the democratic party, but has everything to do with setting herself up to replace Silver, or follow in Chin’s footsteps to City Hall.
Silver’s hubris, stroked by Chin and Stetzer, would be gobsmacking if we hadn’t seen all of this so many times before. Gigi Li’s coronation has been in the making since 2009 when she was handpicked by CB3’s Stetzer and then nursed and weaned by Chin, all with Silver’s blessing.
The status quo is banking on Li to keep in place the political machine that Silver built on top of SPURA, the 30-acre site that he purposely kept fallow for generations, instead of building long-promised affordable housing. Clearly, Silver had calculated that the 1,800 low-income families, (overwhelmingly Latino) who were removed, if allowed to return, would upset the demographics of the neighborhood and jeopardize his political base.