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Taking on Shelly Silver – “Excuse Me, Mr. Speaker” – Screening Tonight

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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.

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  1. You say “the Silver machine trounced Newell in the primary election” but I think it was the LES voters themselves who rejected this guy Newell all on their own. You don’t give the voters credit when you make statements like that. From the start local voters simply supported Silver more and rejected this guy who made himself into a character called ‘Obomawitz’ and promoted ‘Cougars for Newell’, crazy stupid juvenile stuff. I think close to 4 or 5 times as many voters signed petitions to keep Silver on the ballot as their Assemblyman than signed to bring Newell in. It really started there with a pretty big show of support for Silver and only continued to grow. For Newell to say that making calls to help constituents and not for profits is “exactly the thing that corrupts the political system” is probably why he lost so badly to Silver and shows he still has not learned that the little guy needs help and Silver is there to help them and that is not a bad thing but a good thing. Who cares newspapers endorsed Newell, they are not worth the paper they are printed on. Glad to see Newell has learned nothing from his embarrassing loss, and this self promotional video is just the kind of aggrandizement that turns voters off. Silver has a nice quiet, steady, low key manner that is more fitting of what a statesman should be like, especially with all the unstatesman like conduct from the state Senate these days. Silver is a class act.

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