There’s plenty of room to debate whether Shelly Silver is good for the Lower East Side and good for New York State. But no matter your view of Albany’s most powerful man,” I think you’ll find the new documentary film, “Excuse Me, Mr. Speaker,” interesting, poignant and funny. The film debuted last month at the VisionFest Film Festival in Tribeca. There’s another chance to see it tonight (details below).
Filmmaker Justin Sullivan followed Paul Newell’s campaign to unseat Speaker Silver in last year’s election. It was the first time he’d been challenged in 20 years. Newell didn’t exactly seem like a formidable opponent. Here was a 32 year old guy, a community organizer living in a cramped, rent stabilized apartment on Division Street, who says things like “ritalin don’t fail me now.” Yet in spite of the long odds, he won the endorsement of New York’s three biggest newspapers. Sullivan, who’s been friends with Newell for years, got almost complete access to the scrappy, unconventional and, at times, absurd campaign.
The film is very entertaining. After winning the endorsement of the New York Times, a euphoric Newell declares he’s ready to forgive the paper for “weapons of mass destruction.” At the Democratic convention in Denver, he is determined to win over the political establishment — yet one Albany lawmaker goes in search of hand soap after accidently shaking Newell’s hand. On election day, police reprimand Newell for campaigning outside polling stations. Newell sees one officer as a potential voter, extending his hand.
But “Excuse Me, Mr. Speaker” has a serious message. Newell fearlessly argued that Sheldon Silver is beholden to big developers, an adversary of transparency in government and a politician who has forgotten “the little guy.” It’s a message that certainly resonated with New York City’s editorial boards, if not with voters. Even though the Silver trounced Newell in the primary election, the upstart did succeed in one respect. As the Times put it, Newell’s candidacy “brought the ever-secretive Mr. Silver out to meet voters and campaign for his job.”
There is, of course, an alternative point of view. Many non-profit organizations doing good work on the Lower East Side argue that Silver uses his clout to make sure they receive critical funding. His constituent services are top notch. His representatives fan out across the district, attending community meetings and seeking out constituents who need their help with a wide array of problems. In dealing with New York’s tangled bureaucracy, a call from Shelly Silver’s office can cut through a lot of red tape. Newell counters that this is exactly the thing that corrupts the political system. How is a challenger supposed to compete with a guy who has millions at his disposal to “buy an election?”
Newell is still actively involved in politics. He’s working with Pete Gleason, who’s taking on another incumbent, City Councilman Alan Gerson. At the screening I attended, he did not rule out the possibility of running again for the State Assembly. You can see “Excuse Me, Mr. Speaker,” tonight at 8pm at “The Tank,” 354 West 45th Street. More information here. Newell and Justin Sullivan will be on hand to answer questions after the screening.