The First Mistake
We spent the day yesterday engaging our best sources in state government. We were eager to find out what was behind the story in the New York Post about a possible coup in the Assembly against Sheldon Silver. Here’s what we found out:
Q: Was Andrew Cuomo responsible for the story?
A: Yes. People close to Cuomo confirmed it. Top staffers were said to have expressed reservations about idea, but Cuomo wanted to do it.
Q: But Cuomo’s spokesman denied it. What gives?
A: Cuomo routinely issues directives for his media people to say things that are untrue. Reporters now talk openly about what they call “the Cuomo misdirect.”
Q: Well, is there any substance to story itself? Is there a group of lawmakers who are plotting against Silver?
A: With more than 100 members, the Assembly Majority conference certainly has a few malcontents, but there is no movement to replace Silver as leader. In fact, the vast majority of members think he has done an excellent job under difficult circumstances. He is viewed as the person who held the government together in recent years.
Q: What about the part of the story that said that Silver is planning to retire in a couple of years?
A: People believe that Cuomo added that touch to the story as a way of encouraging members of the conference to start positioning themselves as possible successors.
Q: So if there’s no truth to any of this, why did Cuomo do it?
A: The obvious answer is that he wanted to send Silver a message that he’d better do what he wants or else.
Q: But is it realistic to think that Cuomo could ever take out Silver?
A: No. Members of the Assembly Majority Conference elect the Speaker, not the Governor. In fact, interference in conference matters is usually resented as an intrusion by a separate branch of the government. It tends to have the opposite effect – rallying support for a legislative leader.
Q: Cuomo had to know this, so why would he attack Silver?
A: Some key insiders think that Cuomo was actually trying to pick a fight with Silver. They believe he wants Silver, the longest serving legislative leader in history, as a foil. He wants to portray Silver, whom Cuomo privately mocks for his baritone voice and stilted speaking style, as the embodiment of the status quo, the person standing in the way of needed cuts in state spending.
Q: How has Silver responded?
A: Silver did the opposite of what Cuomo was hoping for. He said publicly that he understands that New Yorkers now favor spending cuts and that he and his conference are prepared to work with Cuomo to reduce state spending.
Q: So who wins in this exchange?
A: The insiders we talked to all think Silver did. He didn’t take the bait. He didn’t overreact. The same insiders think Cuomo looks amateurish. They say two things of the new governor:
First, if you are going to take out the king, you just do it. You don’t telegraph it months before it is even possible to execute. (The Assembly isn’t even in session)
Second, nobody thinks it makes any sense for Cuomo’s first action as Governor-elect to be to threaten the legislative leader. One lawmaker we talked to said: “Even Spitzer tried to cooperate in the beginning.”
Q: What comes next?
A: Cuomo’s style is to quickly dial back on his missteps. He’ll talk publicly about the need for collegiality in Albany. He’ll reach out to Silver and try to act as though it never happened. Silver’s style is take due note of the exchange and wait, and wait.