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Assembly Democrats Start Campaigning To Replace Silver

The New York state legislature continued about its business in Albany Wednesday, despite the leadership crisis in the Assembly. Lawmakers held the first in a series of public budget hearings. Meanwhile, several Assemblymembers officially declared their candidacy to succeed Speaker Sheldon Silver, who will leave the office on Monday.

The first of the legislature’s 2015 hearings on Governor Cuomo’s budget proposal began routinely enough. The topic was the environmental budget, and Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chair Denny Farrell introduced the Democratic members who were present.

But none of dozen or so Democrats present are the Chair of the Assembly Environmental Committee.  That key post remains vacant, a casualty of the leadership crisis that has engulfed the Assembly since Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested and accused of running a multi million dollar kickback and bribery scheme on January 22. The former Environmental Committee Chair Robert Sweeney retired, and the Speaker had not yet named a new chair.

Now, with the Speaker agreeing to leave his post on Monday, and an election called for a new Speaker on February 10,  it will be several more weeks before that post is filled.

Advocates for the environment say they will have to advocate for their issues differently in the coming weeks. But Peter Iwanowicz, with Environmental Advocates, says it’s a concern. Assembly Democrats and environment groups have traditionally been allies.

“The house ideology has been very pro-environment,” said Iwanowicz. “It’s been a good spot for issues to go forward.”

Iwanowicz has worked inside of the government, for a time he was head of the state’s environmental conservation agency. He says the lack of a committee chair, and the absence of a strong leader like Speaker Silver to guide policy, has initially inspired more rank and file members to try to master the issues.

“Members for jockeying for seats,” said Iwanowicz.

He says his group is going to be more active lobbying individual Assemblymembers, even ones who aren’t on the committee.  

One of those Assemblymembers who came to the hearing is Keith Wright of Manhattan. He says he’s relived after all of the wrangling over the leadership changes in the past few days to be doing something normal like attending a budget meeting.

“We are back to work,” said Wright. “And it actually feels really, really good.”

Assemblyman Wright is also vying to replace Speaker Silver, when the election for the new Speaker is held on February 10. Wright is also head of the Manhattan Democratic Party and was a statewide Democratic Committee Co-Chair chosen by Governor Cuomo. He says he thinks it’s important that the Speaker be from New York City.

“Historically, it is a New York City position,” Wright said. “And  I do expect that to carry on.”

Wright faces competition from several others, including  Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan of Queens, who formally announced her candidacy. Nolan says in a statement that a female Speaker of the Assembly would end a “culture” that has led to several recent sexual harassment scandals.

Assemblyman Carl Heastie of the Bronx also declared his candidacy, saying he would enact a number of unspecified reforms to increase “transparency and accountability.”

Assemblyman Joe Lentol of Brooklyn has already expressed interest, and Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, who will serve as acting Speaker from February 2 through the 10, is also known to be interested in the job, though Morelle was reluctant to immediately  announce his plans publicly .

Morelle, from Rochester, would be the only upstate candidate.

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