ALBANY — Democrats in the New York state Assembly debated Tuesday on how to select their next leader — even though longtime Speaker Sheldon Silver has yet to resign after he was charged with taking millions of dollars in kickbacks over a decade.
The Democratic lawmakers, who have a two-thirds majority and control of the chamber, held a second straight day of closed-door talks. They deliberated for five hours Monday night before announcing that a majority wanted Silver to step down.
The 70-year-old Manhattan Democrat was taken into custody last Thursday on federal charges he took nearly $4 million in payoffs and kickbacks, but he insists he is innocent and expects to be exonerated.
“There is a strong sense among members it would be best for the speaker to step down and for this body to elect a new speaker,” Assembly member Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, said Tuesday. “There is a lot of hard work ahead to move ahead and unite the body behind a new speaker who can best represent the entire state, champion reforms and restore confidence in the Assembly.”
She noted, though, that the chamber and Silver have been instrumental in raising New York’s minimum wage, legalizing same-sex marriage, funding prekindergarten and other liberal measures.
Silver has so far refused to offer his resignation. A spokesman for him leader didn’t return requests for comment Tuesday and Silver hadn’t yet addressed the gathering of Democrats.
Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Albany, said the conversation in the meeting had moved to the selection of a new speaker — whether an election should be held quickly or whether a temporary leader should be tapped to allow for a longer process allowing individual lawmakers to meet with prospective speakers.
“How we choose the new speaker — that’s the debate,” he told reporters huddled outside the meeting. He said lawmakers were proceeding based on the assumption that Silver will resign.
Assemblyman David Buchwald, a Westchester Democrat, said Silver stepping down would be in the best interest of New Yorkers, considering the serious charges and “his refusal to provide any substantive response to those charges.” He said maintaining ethics in government is a principle on which they shouldn’t compromise.
“The only consensus of the conference just was that the speaker can’t remain the speaker,” Buchwald said about Monday night’s session. If Silver resigns, they can address the process of replacing him, but if not, they’d be faced with having to oust him, which legislators would prefer not to do, he said.
Silver, who has been speaker for 21 years, faces five counts, including conspiracy and bribery, and is accused of using his position to obtain millions of dollars in kickbacks masked as legitimate income from two law firms.
On Sunday, Silver proposed letting five senior legislators temporarily take over the speaker’s duties while he kept the post and fought the federal charges. Lawmakers rejected the idea as unworkable.
There was no clear immediate consensus on Silver’s replacement. Majority Leader Joseph Morelle of Rochester, Assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem and Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx have all been mentioned as likely candidates.
DAVID KLEPPER, Associated Press
MICHAEL VIRTANEN, Associated Press