Karen DeWitt is the Capital bureau chief for New York State Public Radio. She’s been covering the capital with the network for 25 years.
Grant Reeher (GR): When Sheldon Silver was arrested, there was at first an apparent widespread support for him among his Democratic Assembly colleagues; that support was skewered in the press. The support then seemed to quickly reverse over just a couple of days, to the point where the members said, essentially, “You have to go.” What was that dynamic about? Why were they so supportive in the first place?
Karen DeWitt (KD): I think it was the magnitude of the charges against him, as they sunk in. This multi-million dollar scam, if proven true, he essentially monetized his position as Assembly speaker and used all his contacts as a lawyer to make millions of dollars for himself. There’s a lot of corruption in Albany, so I think you become used to it, but this is quite a bit bigger than the run-of-the-mill corruption that people are used to. When they made that announcement, I think the Assembly members were kind of in shock, and the speaker had been speaker for so long — 21 years — it’s almost as though they couldn’t imagine any other scenario, and they said that they would support him. They all looked completely shocked and pale and discombobulated by the whole thing. That was a Thursday morning. As more and more came out about what the speaker allegedly did, and they went home for the weekend and heard from constituents, they realized over the weekend it was completely untenable. It was hard for them to imagine at first, but the speaker was going to have to go. And as we saw it play out, it took quite some prodding to get the speaker to even apparently agree to leave.
GR: Reporters are always talking amongst themselves. Was there any sense before his arrest that Silver was shady in this regard?
KD: For years, there’ve been questions. What did he do to earn his money? The legislature is a part-time job — you’re allowed to have outside jobs — but he made $650,000 a year from one law firm that we knew about. He said that he represented plain, simple, ordinary personal injury suits, but there were never any court records of him representing anybody, so that had been a question for a very long time. When Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo started the Moreland Commission on Ethics, they started probing that. The Moreland Commission was abruptly dropped last March as part of a budget deal. The U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara, took it over, and apparently he thinks he’s found out a few things about how Speaker Silver did earn his money, and none of it was legal. So the questions have been there, but there have been questions for years about other things, including sexual harassment scandals with some of the members and how he handled that. But I think everybody at the Capitol after a while thought nothing can touch this guy, he seems to survive everything. He’s like the Teflon speaker and he keeps going. You just kind of get into that mentality after a while.
GR: When you go through the list of Albany politicians in the recent past who have been indicted or convicted, downstate appears to be heavily over-represented, particularly if you’re looking at money corruption. Why is that?
KD: You know the Willy Sutton saying about robbing banks: That’s where the money is. I think there’s more access to money in New York City, which is a very rich area, unlike many Upstate areas. The Assembly members are less scrutinized; most people in New York City have no idea who their Assembly representative is. Most Upstate people do know who they are. They’re in the news more, they’re more in contact with their constituents, and it’s harder to get away with stuff.
GR: Sounds like motive, means and opportunity.
KD: Yes, combined with lax laws in New York state about disclosing money from outside income. Notice that all of these people have been convicted under federal law, because state laws don’t really exist to police these kinds of things.
GR: One thing struck me in the early days of this scandal: An idea to cede out the speaker duties to a small group of leaders who would carry the budget negotiations forward. This got a lot of negative reaction — the governor said you can’t negotiate by committee, for example. But for years, reformers have complained about the budget negotiations being done by “three men in a room.” Here comes this moment to rethink that in some creative way, and you have a rush back to the one-man model.
KD: I was talking to some (state) Senate aides the other day, when it was being floated, and they were saying, “Well, then maybe my guy or my female senator could be allowed into the meeting, as well.” It would have actually blown (the process) wide open, and maybe the budget would have been done like in other states where the legislatures actually deliberate somewhat in the open, instead of this kind of secretive meeting. Gov. Cuomo likes to have the reputation as a reformer, but he really likes to be in the closed-door meetings just with two or three other people making all the decisions. That’s what has made this Assembly speaker post so powerful: They are the one person in the room making the deal.
GR: It seems to me it may have been a missed opportunity for reform.
KD: I agree with that. It would have been a way to open things up with members of the press who are always standing outside the door waiting for tidbits of what happens in these meetings. We would love it.
GR: What are the other kinds of changes in the process this scandal might produce?
KD: Hard to say. The new Assembly speaker will be at a disadvantage because he will be less experienced than Gov. Cuomo, the master negotiator, and the Senate Republicans who have been at this for decades. It might be harder for the Assembly Democrats to get what they want out of the budget. They did know that with Speaker Silver, they could get what they needed out of the budget, and that actually might have been another reason why they were trying to stick with him initially. The governor has proposed some things like expanding charter schools and teacher evaluations, saying if the legislature doesn’t agree to every single one of his reforms on education, he won’t raise money significantly for school aid. So there’s a lot of things the Assembly Democrats don’t want to happen, and they could be at a disadvantage if there’s a less-experienced person that comes into this meeting and doesn’t really know all of the tricks that Sheldon Silver was famous for.
GR: I guess if there’s a late budget this year, there will be a ready reason for it.
KD: I don’t think the governor is going to allow that. That’s another problem, because he’s figured out a way that he can force his budget through and make the legislature accept all of his demands or shut down of the government. I don’t think he would want to break his record on that, but he might have to make some compromises, as well, to get it done on time.
GR: A broad-based question about Albany: If you had to place its functioning on some kind of scale, relative to itself at different points in its own past, where is it now?
KD: That’s a good question. I would say in the past four years, what Gov. Cuomo did do is essentially make the trains run on time. We’ve had four years of on-time budgets, things have been calm, they’ve been under control, but now with the blow-up in the Assembly, all bets are off. Certainly the last couple days around here seem back to the old chaos. They’re meeting behind closed doors, they won’t tell the public anything, they shut the media completely out of the Assembly chamber — which actually is against their own rules of the house, but there’s nothing you can do to challenge them. So I’d say it’s up in the air. On a scale from one to 10, it’s a five, and it could go either way. It could descend into more chaos, or they could get it together and be more orderly. But certainly it’s taken a step back from where they were progressing toward being a bit more of a functional legislature and state government.
GR: Over the course of your career covering the capital, do you have a personal low point and high point? Was there one day when you were in particular despair over the process, and another when you were inspired?
KD: It probably was both on the same day, when Elliot Spitzer was found to be paying prostitutes and had to resign. It was a low point certainly for the state. People felt very betrayed; they were crying in their offices. But on a professional level, it was a high point because it was a huge story, and we were at the center of it. It’s the highs and lows for the media on a professional level when something bad happens. We worked very intently, but that was a sad time. I’d have to add that when Gov. (David) Paterson had to pick up the pieces, that was probably a low point and a sad time. He struggled; he wasn’t prepared to be governor, really; he had everything against him; the state had a huge deficit. So that was a low point. The lows and highs are kind of in the same moment for those of us in the media.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.