Local Activists Skirmish Over County Committee, Which Could Pick Sheldon Silver’s Successor

Sheldon Silver/file photo.

Sheldon Silver/file photo.

We’re now into the dog days of summer. But for hard-core Lower East Side political activists, July has been anything but relaxing.

In recent days, they’ve been battling to influence who makes it onto the ballot for the Sept. 10 Democratic Primary. This week’s skirmish involves normally obscure elected offices that have taken on new importance given the possibility of a political power vacuum in the 65th Assembly District for the first time  in 40 years. In other words, this is really an opening round in the fight to succeed Lower East Side Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, who faces a federal corruption trial later this year.

At issue is the composition of the Democratic County Committee in Lower Manhattan, which would pick the party’s nominee if there’s a special election to fill Silver’s seat (he would be forced to step down if convicted). Paul Newell, a longtime nemesis of the assemblyman, submitted petition signatures this election cycle, pitting a slate of County Committee candidates against candidates loyal to Silver. In response, they filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court against Newell’s petitions, claiming that signatures were invalid and that, in one instance, a candidate wasn’t even aware her name was being put forth. Rather than proceed with a costly legal case, Newell withdrew the slate.

Much of the grass-roots political organizing in New York City is undertaken by district leaders and their political clubs. Newell is a district leader in Part C of the 65th Assembly District and a member of Downtown Independent Democrats (DID). Members of Sheldon Silver’s Truman Democratic Club (based in Part A of the district) were unamused by Newell’s maneuvers on their home turf. Following the hearing, Grand Street District Leader Karen Blatt said:

I am so pleased that the court knocked out DID’s effort to defraud the voters of my and my co-leader David Weinberger’s Lower East Side district. By claiming to have signatures of Democrats in my district, when they clearly did not, and by attempting to run candidates without their consent, DID has disrespected and violated the trust of all Lower East Side democrats. I am appalled by this attempt and I am glad to see the court agreed.

For his part, Newell called the allegations of fraud baseless. Some signatures were inadvertently collected in the wrong election district, he said, and a communication breakdown was responsible for one candidate being unaware her name was on the petition. Filing the lawsuit, Newell asserted, was a “bullying tactic” by the Silver camp. They could have simply challenged the signatures through the Board of Elections, he said. Newell added that DID had nothing to do with running the county committee candidates; it’s something he did on his own.

On Grand Street, where Silver has lived his entire adult life, neighbors have taken new interest in the Truman Democratic Club’s political activities. Cooperatively Yours, a blog run by residents of the East River Cooperative, published the club’s petitions, noting that “the names of candidates and petition carriers read like a who’s who of Coop Village.”  Because Silver has “hand-picked (county) committee members,” local resident Jeremy Sherber writes, “you shouldn’t expect his grasp on power to diminish” even if he’s convicted.

It is true that Silver has wielded enormous influence over downtown politics for decades. But even before being forced to step down as Assembly speaker, he did not enjoy absolute control of the county committee. Across the 65th Assembly District, there are around 180 county committee members. People loyal to Silver are represented for sure, but there are many other forces at play. Paul Newell, for example, has appointed committee members in his capacity as district leader.

There is, of course, a lot of uncertainty about what will happen in the months ahead. Silver is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 2. He could accept a plea deal before that time, the trial could be delayed, or he could be found not guilty. If exonerated, the longtime Lower East Side politico would be free to run for re-election in 2016.

And then there’s this. If Silver is required to step down, Governor Cuomo gets to decide when to schedule a special election. In some previous instances, he has chosen to keep legislative seats open when he felt is was to his political advantage. So there is at least a possibility that voters would have the opportunity to choose the nominees for the seat in next year’s regular primary election.

If there is a special election, the county committee would, in effect, select the next assembly member from Lower Manhattan, since the district is overwhelmingly Democratic.