N.Y. Assembly Speaker Is Unlikely Hero of Rent War

New York Times, June 18, 1997
ALBANY, N.Y. -- To anyone not steeped in New York politics, Sheldon Silver, the laconic Assembly speaker, seems an unlikely choice to be any sort of public figure, much less one who played a central role in deciding the fate of New York's fabled system of rent protections.

But that is precisely what this Democrat from Manhattan's Lower East Side did.

While the public focused on other better-known players in what became a protracted political minuet here -- on Gov. George Pataki and Joseph Bruno, the white-maned state Senate majority leader who threatened to end rent regulations once and for all -- Silver played his stubborn, well-practiced brand of politics.

And in the end, his side, the tenant side, averted radical change. The system shifted. But it did not disappear. The rules that keep many rents in New York City artificially low were amended. But not abolished.

And Silver now wears the hero's mantle for many New York City residents, however awkwardly.

"This was the perfect meeting of the man and the moment," said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky of Westchester, a Democrat and skilled Albany-watcher. "His style was clearly suited best to this kind of protracted fight. He's spent a lifetime dealing with problems of people in $400-a-month apartments, so he understood the politics implicitly."

Silver said: "I do a job. I'm a citizen of New York."

The 53-year-old Speaker, a lawyer, may lack the elements of political stardom, but his Albany colleagues often note that he has the skills of the litigator at negotiation and compromise, at poker-faced stalling and indirection, at grappling for advantage in the fine print while conceding larger points.

He used those tools to optimal advantage in the fight over the rent rules, which ended early Monday with a compromise that would allow landlords larger rent increases for vacant apartments but would largely keep the system of regulation intact. Tuesday, negotiators continued to work on the language for a new set of laws.

Silver can be animated, even slyly funny, in private -- though not usually. But he is obviously ill at ease in front of groups and microphones. His basso voice drops into a funereal monotone, his jokes tend toward the leaden, and he has a habit of tilting his face down, forcing him to glance upward at his audience, as if he would rather be looking at his shoes. He does not schmooze well.

The speaker grew up on a kind of deal-making, clubhouse politics on the Lower East Side that has fallen out of fashion in most places. He helped hand what is widely seen as an embarrassing public-relations defeat to Pataki, one of the national Republican stars of the class of '94.

The governor has become anathema to many renters, though polls show most vote Democratic, anyway. And from the other side of the political spectrum, Pataki has been accused by conservative editorial writers of caving in.

The situation was tough from the outset for Pataki, given the tenacity with which New Yorkers clung to rent controls, looking on them as sort of a guaranteed security blanket. But Silver helped make it tougher, dragging the dispute out to the moment the old laws expired, all the while using this to paint the governor as a Gingrichian ideologue.

Silver toys with challenging Pataki for the governor's office. But his advisers say that even the speaker acknowledges that he is too unassuming, too lawyerly, too New York City, to succeed far from the legislative district where he has lived his entire life.

He is, after all, an Orthodox Jew who brings all of his meals to Albany each week because it is so difficult to find kosher food here. His manner and temperament, he realizes, according to those close to him, may not play all that well beyond New York City.

Since Pataki was elected in 1994, Silver has had to fight a rear-guard action, and not just because Pataki, the first Republican governor in 20 years, along with the majority Republicans in the state Senate, gave their party two of the three votes to control state government.

New York, perhaps more than any other state, has historically had an expansive government -- in welfare, in health care, in public education and public transportation -- and Pataki came to office determined to pare it back. In other words, in New York, liberals may have had more to lose than anywhere else.

Time and again, Silver has battled Pataki with the same tactics he used in the rent battle, though rarely to such striking effect: delay, undermine, water down, undermine and trade. When Pataki wanted tax cuts, less health care spending, tougher criminal penalties or welfare reforms, the Assembly, Silver said, did too, though, of course, not the same ones or for the same people or in the same way.

Everything the governor wants becomes a bargaining chip for the speaker. Under Pataki, the state has had three of the four latest budgets in its history, including this year's, and that is largely Silver's doing. Last year, he made common cause with the Republican leaders of the Senate to steer the budget away from Pataki's vision.

The governor, a former frustrated legislator who dislikes the Legislature's way of doing business, is said by aides to dislike Silver, too. The feeling is commonly considered mutual. Asked about Silver, Zenia Mucha, Pataki's communications director, said: "The governor enjoys a good relationship with the speaker, but regrettably the speaker puts partisan politics ahead of the interests of the people."

Silver has had his rocky moments, including feuds with former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a Democrat, that were almost as pitched as those with Pataki. And he embarrassed himself two years ago, when, in a rare unguarded moment, he wiggled his hips in mockery of Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross.

Nor have Silver's own Assembly Democrats always been thrilled with him. He manages a diverse group that ranges from upstate conservatives to borderline socialists from the city, as he gives the impression that they speak with one voice. His followers often complain that he lacks vision and charisma, that he relies too heavily on the advice of a handful of allies and advisers, that most Assembly Democrats are barely consulted about positions they are expected to support.

To the extent that such criticisms are true, they show Silver to be a creature of the Legislature and a political culture that critics say is one of the least open in the country.

"There's been no evidence that addressing the obvious flaws of Albany are a priority of his or any previous legislative leaders," said Blair Horner, legislative representative of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "They became leaders because of the system."

While he is often seen by the public as a bulwark of liberalism, some Assembly Democrats say Silver has moved too far to the center, accepting things like death-penalty legislation, changes in the welfare system and stiffer penalties for juvenile offenders. But some of his Republican colleagues, speaking on condition of anonymity, say he has managed the gambit shrewdly, making him a more formidable opponent.

In the afterglow of the rent struggle, Silver's followers are inclined to set aside such cavils.

In the end, Democrats agreed to the most significant gains by landlords in a generation: higher rent ceilings for vacant apartments, deregulation for some wealthy renters and changes in Housing Court rules. But in a year dominated by Republican predictions that the system would end, the outcome smelled to Democrats like victory.

Last December, Bruno declared that he would end the system of regulations within a few years. Rather than be drawn into a running feud with Bruno, Silver sat back for months and let the tenant fury at Republicans mount, while quietly refusing to allow progress on budget, tax-cutting or welfare legislation dear to them.

At every turn, Silver diverted attention away from Bruno and toward Pataki, who also wanted to end the system, albeit more slowly. He reminded those who would listen of Pataki's ties to landlords, of Pataki's influence with Bruno, of Pataki's past opposition to the rent laws.

The Democratic Party and tenants' groups mounted broadcast ads against the governor, legislators sent out fliers by the hundreds of thousands targeting Pataki, and a series of demonstrations kept up the pressure. All of those elements bore Silver's fingerprints, people close to him say.

Pataki's poll ratings fell substantially, Republican senators began to rebel against Bruno, and as last Sunday's deadline for the laws to expire approached, panic among renters intensified. Then, Sunday night, the Republicans, having gained several smaller changes, dropped their core demand to deregulate large numbers of apartments.

Republican lawmakers and landlords now accuse Bruno and Pataki of bungling their roles. But they acknowledge that Silver knew precisely how to take advantage of his opponents' mistakes.