In Budget Fight, an Albany Titan Is Overshadowed
ALBANY — Standing last week before a closed-door meeting of the Assembly Democrats he has led for the better part of two decades, Sheldon Silver laid out the grim reality.
The hospitals and health care unions, the Democrats’ traditional allies in the annual budget fight, had abandoned them. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would offer no additional money for schools and senior centers and no income tax surcharge on the wealthy. If they refused his terms, Mr. Cuomo would wield his emergency budget powers to ram through even steeper cuts. And if they forced a government shutdown, Mr. Silver explained, it would be the widely reviled Legislature — not the popular governor — that would be blamed.
Take the deal, Mr. Silver urged.
“It was like the general calling in his colonels and telling them he was going to surrender,” said one lawmaker who insisted on anonymity because caucus meetings are meant to be confidential.
For years, through Republican and Democratic governors alike, Mr. Silver has been Albany’s most enduring center of power. Understated and tenacious, politely elusive and maddeningly patient, Mr. Silver has endured the slings of good-government groups and the arrows of tabloid editorial pages to defend the interests of his members and their allies and to bend Albany to his will.
But as the Legislature prepares to vote on the state’s most austere budget in more than two decades, Mr. Silver suddenly finds himself diminished, leading a depleted Democratic caucus that is more politically isolated than at any time in years. And he has found himself in the formidable shadow of Mr. Cuomo, the freshman Democratic governor who has reinvigorated an office already vested with considerable powers.
“I don’t think you get realignments in one year,” said James R. Tallon Jr., a former Assembly majority leader who is now president of the United Hospital Fund. “But I’ve rarely seen any governmental leader in Albany play a better three-month cycle than Governor Cuomo has played.”
In years past, Mr. Silver deployed his own well-worn playbook, famous for his gnomic utterances, his refusal to commit to positions in advance and his willingness to wait out governors until they were desperate for a deal, any deal.
A close alliance with powerful labor unions, particularly teachers and health care workers, provided Assembly Democrats an effective and well-financed political communications arm in their battles with the governor. An impregnable majority — Assembly Democrats control roughly two-thirds of the chamber’s 150 seats — helped insulate them from any political tides that roiled national and state politics.
But those strengths proved less useful against a popular and aggressive governor buoyed by ever-rising public anger against Albany and constrained by the stark reality of the state’s dire finances. Wooed by Mr. Cuomo’s early invitation to partner with him on cutting Medicaid, the health care industry spent March advertising enthusiastic support for Mr. Cuomo’s budget rather than angry opposition. The governor’s threat to force even deeper cuts on the Legislature using his emergency powers, along with the low likelihood of a quick economic rebound, made delaying tactics pointless.
Meanwhile, a growing number of Assembly Democrats had begun to share Mr. Cuomo’s view that state spending had spiraled out of control. Publicly, Mr. Cuomo offered the Legislature political redemption, if it joined him to enact budget cuts. Many lawmakers seem poised to accept, with gratitude.
“Speaking for myself, I think that I work very hard and believe in the things that I work for,” said Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, a Rockland County Democrat. “When the institution that you work hard in is consistently criticized as nonfunctioning — and that means people don’t believe you’re doing your job — it wears on you.”
Mr. Silver has long resisted the notion of being a legislative potentate, let alone a protector of budget bloat or a guardian of Albany’s status quo. Mr. Silver, in an interview on Monday, suggested that the budget deal, far from marking a loss for him, was a win-win outcome for his members, for the governor and for New Yorkers.
“The fact is that we acted responsibly, recognizing we lost $7 billion in federal stimulus money, that the economy did not grow significantly enough to warrant significant increases in expenditures,” Mr. Silver said. He noted that the $132.5 billion budget outlined by Mr. Cuomo on Sunday was just half a billion dollars less than the one-house budget the Assembly passed this month. And he rattled off a long list of provisions — additional school aid; the defeat of a cap on medical malpractice awards; money for community colleges, senior centers and summer programs — that Mr. Cuomo had agreed to.
“I think there was just a general feeling that we want to deal with reality, that dealing with it in April or in May or in June is not going to change reality,” Mr. Silver said. “There’s not going to be a groundswell of revenue coming into the state changing the picture. There was no advantage or reason to delay making the tough decisions.”
By far the biggest change in Albany’s power equation was Mr. Cuomo himself. Wielding carrots along with sticks, Mr. Cuomo personally cultivated lawmakers who might be tempted to criticize him publicly and even offered administration appointments to Silver loyalists.
Soon after taking office, Mr. Cuomo lured one of Mr. Silver’s top aides, Sabrina M. Ty, to his administration to handle legislative affairs, a job in which her years of institutional knowledge and close relationships with Assembly lawmakers were put to Mr. Cuomo’s own uses. Last month, Mr. Cuomo named Assemblyman Darryl C. Towns, an influential Brooklyn Democrat and former chairman of the Legislature’s black and Latino caucus, to a plum job as chief executive of the state’s Housing Finance Agency.
But the shifting terrain in the Senate also mattered. During the later years of the Pataki administration, Mr. Silver and the unions crafted an alliance with Senate Republicans to resist cuts to schools and health care. During the two-year stretch when a fractious Democratic majority held the Senate and federal stimulus money filled state coffers, Mr. Silver became virtually unstoppable, driving Gov. David A. Paterson and the Senate to enact billions in extra expenditures and an income tax on the wealthy.
Under Mr. Cuomo, however, Mr. Silver has been forced to contend with a restored Republican majority more willing to accept cuts to schools and health care. Dean G. Skelos, the Senate majority leader, also sided with Mr. Cuomo to block the “millionaires’ tax.”
But Mr. Silver has endured lean times before, most notably during the first two years under Gov. George E. Pataki, who forced the Assembly to accept tax cuts on the wealthy and an overhaul to state welfare programs that many Democratic lawmakers abhorred. As the years passed, Mr. Pataki’s popularity ebbed, while Mr. Silver’s strength grew.
By acceding to Mr. Cuomo’s demands now, Mr. Silver may be setting the stage for a rebound, harnessing the governor’s popularity to help refurbish the Legislature’s tarnished image and enhance lawmakers’ political standing in the long term.
“The new governor holds the commanding heights,” said Robert B. Ward, deputy director of the Rockefeller Institute, a research center. “The role for the Legislature often is to wait out a governor — and certainly the speaker has proven he’s a master of that.”