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Assemblymember Cahill on Silver, Heastie, Hochul and the bottle bill

Assemblyman Kevin Cahill
NYS Assembly
NYS Assembly
Assemblyman Kevin Cahill

One of the most powerful people in New York state Assembly history is being remembered for championing progressive legislation, but also for the corruption conviction and legal battle that marked his final years.

Sheldon Silver died at age 77 this week. His fellow Democrat, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill of the 103rd district, championed Silver’s legacy.

Speaker Silver was speaker for most of my tenure in the Assembly, until he left, and when he was speaker, he took a great interest in not only my own reelection, but also my community and he helped over the course of time do a number of really important things in the community. We opened a migrant child daycare center with resources that he helped us get, we opened a LGBTQ center with resources he helped get, he helped me provide the funding to the local ARC that provided a career ladder and employee retention program with over $5 million over the course of years. He did a lot else in the district, partially because he spent some time there. And partially because that's the kind of things that he did across the state.

Even his detractors have remarked about how he kind of pulled the levers of power and ran that chamber. What made him so adept at that?

I think, at the end of the day, he was a very humble man. And I think he certainly viewed his role as speaker and also as a member of the Assembly as one with an opportunity for service. His role as speaker was often typified by not really revealing much, not really tipping his hand. He was famous for saying ‘I hear you,’ he was famous for saying ‘It is what it is’ or ‘We'll see,’ leaving very vague responses to answers. And then as soon as the door was shut, he went to work to try to solve the problem that the member brought to him. That was the way he operated. And people knew that. When he was challenged in 2000, there was an overwhelming demonstration of support for him because that is exactly the way he operated. And it also reflected itself in legislation. He was so important in making sure that marriage equality, medical marijuana and the first round of decriminalization that started the process by which a whole generation of people were having their criminal records repaired.

He helped end stop and frisk. He supported and was one of the main movers behind bringing pre-kindergarten across the state of New York. He of course was known for his very strong advocacy for Nanotech and bringing New York's industry into the 21st century. But he was also known for things like maintaining rent regulation in New York City in in years where it seemed next to impossible to do with Republican governors, Republican Senates and a very slim margin in the Assembly, where rent regulation could have gone away very easily. He did a lot for the people of the state of New York. As I say, he was a humble man who never forgot his beginnings.

How would you compare his approach with that of the current speaker, Carl Heastie from the Bronx?

I think Carl Heastie is the is the right speaker for the time right now. I think Sheldon Silver would have agreed with that. I think that that Carl Heastie has picked up on some of the legacies that that Speaker Silver started with. It was Speaker Silver who started to appoint women as chairs of committees. And the point today, where if you count task forces, women chair more than half of the leader leadership positions and even without task forces, nearly half of the committees and subcommittees in the Assembly. That was the legacy that was started with Speaker Silver. Carl Heastie has picked up on a few other things that that the speaker has done, that Speaker Silver started, and that was really paying attention to the needs of individual members.

Carl Heastie is a different person. He is much more demonstrative, much more open about what he says and, and is much more accessible than Sheldon Silver was, but it's also a different time. Carl Heastie is the right speaker for this time. I think Sheldon Silver was the right speaker for his time.

Of course, his life in public service came to a very ignominious end. How do you put Silver's ending and corruption conviction in context with his larger career? Does it puzzle you?

It only puzzles me in that there was a line and he crossed it apparently in the view of a jury and a prosecutor and a judge. I don't agree with the decision of the jury. I don't agree with the decision of the court. And I certainly don't agree with the approach of the prosecutor but I also don't stand in substitute of judgment for them. If you go to the core of what he was charged with, and even ultimately convicted of, even the convictions that were not reversed. In each instance, it was making sure that people had access to resources that they deserved, whether it was medical resources that his constituents needed after their exposure to the post 911 air in lower Manhattan, or legal services to sue those who were appropriately responsible for the damaged air, when it came to the real estate issue that he was charged with and ultimately ended up being incarcerated for, even that was referring people to a law firm so that they could take advantage of a law that existed for all people. So even in the instances where the criminal justice system using federal statutes that were, quite frankly, intended to trap public officials, the underlying charges were based upon him still helping people and largely helping people in his district.

I will always remember the days that followed September 11, when Sheldon Silver was still the Speaker of the Assembly, but he was even more so the Assemblyman for the neighborhood that was devastated by that amazingly huge tragedy. We all felt that across the country and across the world, but he felt it in his neighborhood. And what he did was turned his office into a resource center for all of people in his community. And he was beloved for it.

As I understand it, Governor Hochul’s proposal to ban outside income does not extend to the legislative leaders. But what do you think of that idea? If outside income is just across the board not on the table anymore, you know, people like Sheldon Silver won't have as much worry about where that line is?

Well, I think that it's certainly something we should seriously consider. It's certainly something we would have seriously considered a few years ago when the pay commission made a determination. The courts determined that the pay commission overstepped their bounds, it was out of the hands of the legislature to review those matters. But certainly, banning outside income would avoid in the future even the appearance of any impropriety and would certainly prevent anybody from falling into this trap and possibly compromising a life of accomplishment. So yeah, I think it's a terrific idea. It's something that is long overdue. And if the opportunity presents itself as it probably will later this year, the legislature ought to take the matter up.

What did you think of her budget proposal?

I think the governor's budget proposal is ambitious. I think it's also responsible. It is the largest budget New York has seen by a longshot. It no longer adheres to the artifice of a 2% cap, which the previous governor claimed to adhere to, but did not. And it also provides for the glide path back to normalcy for our society. Governor Hochul has put into the budget a number of reserves that when the one-time funding sources dry up, the opportunity to fund them will no longer be necessary. And we will be able to carry on and sustain the government that has to continue to exist with the revenues that we can reasonably expect.

What did you think of her idea for term limits?

I think the idea of term limits for executives is something that is very appealing. We have seen in New York state governors who have what they call third term syndrome. And it exists elsewhere too. And with executives, they have a unique level of power that legislators don't have. I mean, here in the legislature, I don't know that term limits would make sense. We have such a diverse group of legislators here people, ranging from the longest tenured legislator in the history of the state legislature, Dick Gottfried, right on up to people who are elected last week. And that mix is very important for the legislative process to go forward. But the concentration of power in the hands of an executive is very, very different. And it is important that we seriously consider the opportunity for some means by which there is a check to the power that exists.

Going back to Nelson Rockefeller, who in his third term was considered somewhat tyrannical. Going back to Mario Cuomo’s third term. The truth has been the case with a lot of governors that they have enormous amounts of power. It also speaks to the amount of power that has been vested in the governor in the state of New York, just by the nature of the office, we have the single most powerful executive in the United States of America and of any government. The governor of New York has line item veto, the governor of New York has the power of the checkbook. The governor of New York can make a lot of decisions unilaterally. That's a lot of power for someone to have without any finite end in sight.

Do you trust the way that Governor Hochul has been using that power so far?

Absolutely. I think Governor Hochul has been, in my experience, and I've experienced, I believe, five or six governors, has been the most open and accessible governor. The agencies are responsive to the members of the legislature. There's a collaborative process taking place with legislation. What we went through this year for negotiating bills that have been sent to the governor for her signature or veto was a far more open and collaborative process than I've ever experienced. I think she's doing the right thing. What Kathy Hochul has demonstrated is just because you have the power, doesn't mean you have to exercise it all the time.

Just one more thing. I'm going to go back to my desk and finish a can of seltzer. Will I get 10 cents for that this year?

I hope so. That's the bill of carrying, you know. The bottle bill. That's a really good question. When we first put the bottle bill into effect in New York state, we had about over an 85% compliance rating. That is 87% of the people who bought deposit bottles, brought them back and had them got their nickel back. So it didn't cost them anything for that container. That number is down to the low 60s, we've lost about 25% of participation.

And then to layer on top of that we're also in a circumstance where back in the day, you know, it was Coke or Pepsi or Bud or Miller. Now people are drinking a whole variety of beverages, many of which are not included in the bottle bill. So we needed a refresher of the law. When we do it, it will save consumers a lot of money because they'll be getting their full dime back instead of giving the nickel away. It will save our municipalities the cost of landfilling, containers that could have otherwise been recycling and it will save our planet because it will reduce the carbon output. So it's a win-win all around and my hope is my colleagues will see the same thing and we can all enjoy a better environment because of it.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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