In the past two days, we’ve been talking with a lot of people on the Lower East Side about the bombshell news of Sheldon Silver’s arrest.
As the Times pointed out this morning, Speaker Silver has his share of detractors in the neighborhood in which he was born and raised. There’s definitely significant scandal fatigue and anger about the allegations of brazen influence pedaling and profiteering contained in the U.S Attorney’s 35-page report.
However, amongst the hard-core community activists and service providers we have interviewed since yesterday morning, the prevailing emotions are anxiety and fear of the uncertain road ahead. No one was willing to say anything meaningful on the record, but many people spoke candidly on background about the potential impact of Silver’s arrest.
As of this moment, it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll be able to continue as Speaker. But whether he hangs on in the short-term or is made to step aside, the dramatic events this week have forced everyone to begin thinking through “life on the Lower East Side after Shelly.”
His impact in the neighborhood is immense. For one thing, the Speaker directs millions of dollars in funding to non-profit organizations that provide social services, including after school programs and meals for seniors. Some of the funding comes in the form of direct grants. But more important, not-for-profit leaders say, Silver has huge influence over virtually every line in the state budget. While prosecutors and good government groups have argued that this is part of the problem in Albany, providers of social programs will tell you Silver has been an invaluable ally and a fierce protector of progressive values.
Over the years, people on the Lower East Side have grown accustomed to leaning on the Speaker’s office. A single call from his deputies to a city or state agency can make things happen. You’ve got a leaky subway station? Call Shelly. No one’s listening to your plea for a stop sign at a dangerous intersection? Call Shelly. Gas service has failed yet again in your NYCHA building? Call Shelly. It’s true that lots of people don’t feel as though they have his ear. As the Times put it, “Mr. Silver has often been accused of spreading his love for the Lower East Side unevenly.” But there’s no doubt it will be a rude awakening one day (whether that day is tomorrow or two years from now) when the Lower East Side’s Assemblyman is not the most powerful presence in the room.
There’s another point of view, of course. Some of the people we interviewed are eagerly looking forward to a fresh start. Within the Latino community, in particular, there’s still a lot of resentment towards Silver. Many affordable housing activists will never forgive him for blocking redevelopment of the Seward Park parcels for so many years. A new generation of progressive activists sees Silver’s eventual exit from the political stage as an opportunity to cultivate new leadership.
There’s already some speculation about who might emerge to run for Silver’s seat in the 65th Assembly District, should it become available. Paul Newell, who opposed the Speaker in 2008, is a potential candidate. He posted a statement on his website shortly after news of Silver’s pending arrest broke. Other possible candidates include: Jenifer Rajkumar (a district leader), City Council member Margaret Chin (although she has never expressed interest in a future beyond the Council) and Community Board 3 Chairperson Gigi Li.
But, truth be told, most Lower East Side political insiders are betting Silver isn’t going anywhere for the time being. They’ve seen him overcome one scandal after another and are convinced he’s still got some fight left.