ALBANY, NY — Sheldon Silver, the indomitable former leader of the New York State Assembly whose career and reputation was devastated by a corruption conviction in 2015, died Monday. He was 77 years old.
Mr. Silver had been incarcerated at Devens Federal Medical Center in Ayer, Mass., according to Judith Rapfogel, his former chief of staff. Kristie Breshears, spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said in a statement that Mr. Silver died at the nearby Nashoba Valley Medical Center.
The cause of death was not immediately clear, but Mr. Silver had a history of cancer and chronic kidney disease, according to statements made by his lawyers in 2020.
A Lower East Side Democrat whose rise to power began with his election in 1976, Mr. Silver was known as a master of Albany’s power labyrinths, controlling the Assembly – and its dominant Democratic majority – as president for two decades, from 1994 to 2015.
Soft-spoken and inscrutable in his public statements and interviews in the Capitol hallway, Mr. Silver nonetheless wielded an outsized influence, able to advance liberal causes like raising the minimum wage and building affordable housing. At the same time, he was also able to thwart the priorities of mayors and governors – he served alongside six, from Hugh L. Carey to Andrew M. Cuomo – even killing proposals as flashy as a stadium in the Manhattan’s West Side.
That dominance came crashing down in early 2015 when Mr. Silver was accused of accepting nearly $4 million in illicit payments in exchange for official actions for a cancer researcher at Columbia University and two real estate agents.
Convicted of federal corruption charges in late 2015, Mr. Silver successfully challenged that conviction, which resulted in its overturning in 2017. A second trial – and conviction – followed in 2018. Mr. Silver successfully avoid prison until 2020, when his legal maneuverings finally came to a halt, leaving him to serve a six-and-a-half-year sentence.
Mr. Silver was granted a brief reprieve from prison last spring when he was furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic. After a public outcry, he was returned to jail two days later.
On Monday, former longtime colleagues of Mr Silver sought to reconcile the circumstances of his downfall with what they see as his achievements over 20 years as Assembly leader, saying he was an ardent advocate for New York City priorities, especially after 9/11.
“Shelly Silver was one of the most powerful forces for progressive issues in the New York State Legislature,” Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat, said, noting the record of Mr. Silver on issues of civil liberties, reproductive rights and the legalization of same-sex marriage. He added: “It is a tragedy that these accomplishments have been overshadowed by his criminal record.”
The fall of Mr. Silver – and that of his Republican counterpart in the state Senate, Dean G. Skelos, who was also convicted of federal corruption charges in 2015 – presaged a shift in the balance of power in Albany. , where most deals had traditionally been brokered by “three men in a room”, i.e. the Governor, Speaker of the Assembly and Leader of the Senate.
Indeed, Mr. Silver’s successor, Carl E. Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx who is also the Assembly’s first black speaker, was seen as more of a consensus seeker than an iron-fisted Mr. Silver. And the historic convention of “three men” making major decisions has also been dropped, at least temporarily, as the posts of governor and head of the state Senate are now held by women.
Sheldon Silver was born on February 13, 1944, on the Lower East Side, a working-class neighborhood he would call his forever home and which helped shape both his political beliefs and his power base. Her parents were Russian immigrants and her father ran a hardware business. He played basketball on public courts around the city, a passion he shared with former Governor Mario M. Cuomo and other lawmakers who grew up in New York and graduated from Yeshiva University.
He trained as a lawyer – graduating from Brooklyn Law School – and ran for Assembly in 1976, crushing Republican opponent Leonard Wertheim and joining a chamber that included Chuck Schumer – now the principal US state senator. Mr. Silver rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the chairman of the Codes Committee, which oversees criminal law, and went on to practice law, two sons who would clash with his eventual bribery conviction.
Early political victories reflected his legislative acumen and religious faith: An Orthodox Jew, he sponsored a 1983 law that abolished religious barriers to remarriage for Jewish women – which required a “get”, or Jewish divorce decree, of their husbands – in opposition to traditional Jewish law. He also helped ban autopsies when the procedure was contrary to religious belief and had “no compelling public necessity,” according to his official Assembly biography.
Mr. Silver is survived by his wife, Rosa, and four children, Edward, Esther, Janine and Michelle.
His rise to lecturer status came in tragedy in 1994, when then-president Saul Weprin died of a stroke. Mr. Silver had served as interim president, rising to the post with the support of other New York Democrats, who wield deep power in the Assembly.
According to Joseph R. Lentol, a former Democratic Party congressman from Brooklyn, making deals with the state Senate, then run by Republicans, required a skilled negotiator. He said Mr Silver played a key role in securing public funds in the early 1990s to finance the hiring of police officers in the city, cleaning up Times Square and helping spark “the renaissance of New York”.
“He was able to work things out and compromise with a Republican Senate and very often a Republican governor,” Mr. Lentol said, noting that Mr. Silver had served 12 years under Governor George E. Pataki, a term of three terms. Republican.
In 2000, Mr. Silver faced a revolt in the Assembly from a faction of Democrats, many from upstate, unhappy with his leadership. The coup attempt failed, but it politically hurt Mr. Silver and publicized a remarkable intra-party power struggle that would have usually taken place behind closed doors on Capitol Hill.
In 2007, Mr. Pataki was replaced by Governor Eliot Spitzer, beginning a series of Democratic Party governors that continues. But even as governors — and New York City mayors — came and went, Mr. Silver continued to serve. Many considered him the most powerful politician in the state, able to shape legislative programs and multi-billion dollar budgets to his will.
At the same time, he continued to earn outside income. This work eventually led to his indictment and arrest for awarding grants to Columbia University cancer researcher Robert N. Taub in exchange for referring cancer patients to a doctor’s office. lawyers, Weitz & Luxenberg, who reimbursed part of his fees. to Mr. Silver. Another scheme involved similar fees paid to Mr. Silver by two property developers.
His 2015 arrest rocked Albany, upending years of stability and opening the door to a wave of more progressive young lawmakers, a trend that ultimately led Democrats to capture the state Senate in 2018.
During his 2020 sentencing amid the pandemic, Mr Silver’s lawyers asked a judge to allow him to avoid jail and serve house arrest, arguing jail would increase his chances of getting sick or contracting the coronavirus. Federal District Court in Manhattan Judge Valerie E. Caproni, who oversaw the case, denied the request.
“Your Honor, I don’t want to die in jail,” Mr. Silver wrote in a letter to the judge.
William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.