Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel
Sheldon Silver on the Downtown campaign trail.
Silver feels the heat of a race; says congestion pricing could pass
By Josh Rogers and Julie Shapiro
Instead of spending his summer negotiating with fellow power brokers in air-conditioned rooms, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said he’s knocking on doors in sweltering 94-degree apartment hallways.
Residents who have watched him on TV seem surprised to see him in the flesh and blood, standing in their doorway. He said they ask him, “You’re here? You’re asking me for my vote?” and he tells them that’s his job.
“It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding, very rewarding,” Silver said.
The reason Silver is making the rounds through apartment complexes during the dog days of August is because he is facing his first primary challenge in 22 years, from Paul Newell, a community activist, and Luke Henry, a lawyer. On Wednesday, he spent an hour speaking to editors and reporters of Downtown Express and Gay City News, both owned by Community Media L.L.C., about the upcoming race and the issues he will tackle if reelected, such as mayoral control of the schools.
Running a primary race is like being a college student, Silver said: “You do your homework all year, or you cram for the final.”
Silver pointed to his long career staying in touch with his constituents as the homework he has done to prepare for this race. That homework includes the taskforces he runs on school overcrowding and the 130 Liberty St. and Fiterman Hall demolitions, along with his hand-shaking and door-knocking at Downtown apartment complexes this summer.
With four weeks to go before the Sept. 9 primary, Silver does not sound nervous.
“I have a very good feeling about this race,” he said. “I’m fairly confident that I’m going to win comfortably, and the question is going to be by how much.”
During Wednesday’s interview, Silver said he agrees with the governor’s grim budget projections although he is resisting some of the proposed cuts, thought enacting a limited congestion pricing plan is feasible, and said he thought there was a way to continue the rent protections at Gateway Plaza which he first secured 14 years ago.
Surprisingly, he was the one who raised the controversial issue of his outside income from a private legal practice.
“I maintain my right in a part time legislature to not be dependent on paying next month’s or next year’s rent based on whether I get reelected, so I believe I do what’s right,” he said while explaining his vote for same-sex marriage last year.
He likened his marriage vote to one of his first votes 32 years ago to use Medicaid funds to cover abortions. In an apparent reference to his fellow Orthodox Jews in his Lower Manhattan district, he said most of his base opposed state-funded abortions and same sex marriage, but the issues were “philosophical” questions that he did not consult polls to resolve. On same sex marriage, he said he was also mindful of supporting the Assembly Democrats that he leads.
He said both he and the bill’s sponsor, Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, were “shocked” the measure passed with 85 votes. Both were expecting a narrow victory of 78 or 79 votes. The bill remains stalled in the Republican-controlled State Senate.
Silver, who practices law with Weitz & Luxenberg, did not disclose how much money he makes from the law firm. He said he discloses a range of incomes to the State Ethics Commission, but the commission is forbidden to release the numbers to the public. He said he might release these numbers someday in the future, but not now.
“I would consider doing that at some point,” he said.
He said his reputation brings revenue to the law firm, but he only represents individuals in personal injury cases part time, and does not take cases that conflict with state business. He said the Assembly is his main occupation.
“I do this job pretty much full time,” Silver said. “I have a following —- I have some degree of notoriety. I work with a firm and get paid based on what I am able to bring in to the firm in that category of cases — period.
He said he would not ever release his income tax returns as a matter of privacy and because he would not want the press to pick apart the implications of his charitable donations.
Silver said he’ll probably support mayoral control of schools when it comes up for review next year.
“The concept is fine,” he said. “It may need some tweaking.”
Silver, who negotiated the bill’s language with the mayor six years ago, wants to hear from parents, teachers and experts before he decides what that tweaking will be, so he plans to hold hearings in January to solicit opinions. But he doesn’t need to wait until then to discuss the shortfalls he sees in the current structure.
The biggest problem, he said, is with parental involvement. When parents have a complaint about an educational policy, the city leaves them few alternatives, Silver said.
“They almost leave it like, well, go picket City Hall,” Silver said. “Stand on the steps of City Hall with a placard if you have a problem and let them know that’s the problem. There isn’t a mechanism for parents to have the kind of input they should have into their child’s education.”
Along a similar vein, Silver added that transparency is key.
“I don’t care who controls the board, just let people know what you’re doing,” he said.
Silver also questioned Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s claims that his control of the school system caused test scores to rise. Silver thinks that the scores went up because today’s elementary students are the first who had universal pre-kindergarten, a program Silver championed.
“Now we’re seeing the fruits of that initiative,” Silver said.
He also questioned the validity of the increasing high school graduation rates and said the numbers needed a closer look.
Minding the budget gap
Silver and the rest of the Legislature will be going up to Albany next week for a special session to figure out ways to close a $1 billion budget gap. Silver said the new revenue projections by Gov. David Paterson, who called the session, are correct, but Silver said there is no need to cut individual member items as the governor proposes, when the pain could be shared equally.
“Instead of, ‘you lose, you lose, you lose,’ say ‘okay, why don’t we just — let’s do an across the board reduction, make some important areas — maybe hold them harmless — do one percent across the board, two percent across the board,’” he said.
Silver was planning to discuss budget ideas with the rest of the Assembly’s Democratic delegation on Thursday, Aug. 14 in his Lower Manhattan office. He said Paterson’s projections are in line with what the Assembly was saying back in February, when then Gov. Eliot Spitzer saw a rosier horizon.
Silver said in most years, the Assembly only ends up using about 60 percent of its discretionary budget and that money should now be used to help close the deficit.
“I have accumulated over the years a significant amount of cash that never went out the door, and in this time of crisis I’m ready to turn it in and say ‘okay, here’s the money,’” Silver said. “‘Take it back.’”
Errol Cockfield, a Paterson spokesperson, said in addition to the funds Silver mentioned, the governor also wants to cut $100 million out of this year’s discretionary budget, reducing it by half.
Maybe the only thing congestion pricing opponents and proponents agree on is that Shelly Silver was the one most responsible for killing it. On the campaign trail Downtown, opponents often thank Silver and proponents question why he didn’t push through the mayor’s plan to charge $8 to enter Lower and Midtown Manhattan at busy times. The funny thing is, Silver actually supported the measure.
This week, he repeated his reason for not bringing it to the floor — the Assembly opposition was overwhelming. He said there were about 15 supporters, and if he had applied pressure, he thinks he could have gotten the number up to 20 — far short of the 76 votes needed.
He said outer borough Assmblymembers did not support the plan because “the M.T.A. lost its credibility.” After so many broken promises, no one believed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would direct the congestion pricing revenue to mass transit expansion, Silver said.
On Wednesday, he sounded as if the plan was dead for good, but when asked if it had any congestion pricing plan had a chance to pass he said “Yes. No question — as part of a comprehensive plan in how you do things…. Maybe a more limited zone.”
Silver did not go into the specifics of how much smaller he wanted the congestion pricing zone to be. Although the M.T.A. has lost its credibility, Silver said he has faith in an old M.T.A. leader, Richard Ravitch, whom the governor appointed to head a commission to come up with ways for the authority to close its $14 billion capital budget gap.
“I have complete confidence in him,” Silver said. “When his report comes out, you’ll see this start to get straightened out.”
Ravitch told the New York Times two weeks ago that he was “very” seriously considering Bloomberg’s traffic pricing plan.
At Gateway Plaza, one of the largest apartment complexes Downtown, tenants hope Silver can pull a rabbit out of the hat for the third time and extend the building’s rent-stabilization before it expires. Silver previously negotiated agreements with the LeFrak Organization, which owns Gateway Plaza, that gave tenants an extra 14 years of rent-stabilization, but the current agreement expires next summer. Tenants could see their stabilized rents soar to market rates.
Silver told Downtown Express that he is in negotiations with LeFrak and the Battery Park City Authority to extend the stabilization. As leverage, Silver is hoping to use the fact that LeFrak’s ground lease is up for review by the authority in 2023. That’s a long way off, but LeFrak wants to know now what the new ground rent will be, so they can refinance their mortgage and renovate the 30-year-old building, Silver said. The question, Silver said, is: What’s in it for the tenants?
Silver had influence over LeFrak in the past because he controls a vote on the Public Authorities Control Board and had effective veto power over LeFrak’s request to refinance its bonds. Silver does not know whether LeFrak will go before the board this time, but he thinks the Battery Park City Authority could set aside some of the money it will receive from LeFrak and use that to keep Gateway rent-stabilized.
Back in January, the authority’s spokesperson said that Jim Cavanaugh, president of the B.P.C.A., told LeFrak that any ground rent deal would have to include rent-stabilization and a green retrofit. LeFrak said they didn’t want to pay for those things.
LeFrak has been trying to escape rent stabilization for more than a decade, so they weren’t eager to sit down with Silver for another round of negotiations.
“I’m not going to allow Sheldon Silver to extort us again,” was their initial attitude, Silver said. “And I’m proud of that, by the way,” Silver added with a smile.