Power Struggle Sinks New York Stadium

By E.J. Kessler, With Reporting by E.B. Solomont.

Published June 10, 2005, issue of June 10, 2005.
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a power struggle between two of the country’s most influential jewish politicians appears to have torpedoed new york city’s bid to build a new football stadium and bring the 2012 olympics to the big apple.

The push for a new stadium had been spearheaded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose dream it was to showcase the Olympics and rejuvenate the far West Side of Manhattan with a new facility for the New York Jets and a convention center. The plan effectively was killed this week by Sheldon Silver, the speaker of the New York State Assembly, who represents a largely working-class district encompassing Chinatown, the old Jewish Lower East Side, the Wall Street area and the site of the destroyed World Trade Center.

Using his vote on the obscure Public Authorities Control Board, Silver united with the state’s Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, to veto the $1.9 billion stadium deal. Silver argued that the plan would have drawn public and private investment away from the redevelopment of lower Manhattan, which is still reeling from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack.

“Am I supposed to turn my back on lower Manhattan as it struggles to recover?” an irate Silver told reporters after the vote Monday. “For what? A stadium? For the hope of bringing the Olympics to New York City?”

The struggle involved two styles of political leaders, New Yorkers and Jews. In one corner was Bloomberg, the bon vivant, non-religious, highflying billionaire businessman, philanthropist and nominally Republican mayor. In the other was Silver, arguably the most powerful Orthodox Jewish politician in the country — a charisma-challenged, street-talking, old-style Democratic boss whose power is predicated on deft maneuvering among the party’s squabbling factions, combined with a deep and strategic knowledge of the arcane ways of Albany, considered one of the nation’s most Byzantine state capitals.

Politics watchers counted it as a stunning defeat for Bloomberg, and were debating whether it had sunk his chances for reelection in November. The mayor “tried to ramrod through a backroom, sweetheart deal” for the stadium, said City University of New York political scientist Douglas Muzzio, but in the end he was taught “not only a political lesson, but a governmental lesson” by Silver.

As for Silver, the set-to allowed the state lawmaker, who is little known outside New York, a rare moment in the national spotlight. In the end, he had sunk a plan that was a favorite not just of the mayor but of New York’s powerful Governor George Pataki and President Bush.

“The general feeling, if you talked to people about the stadium, was that it was inevitable if the mayor, the governor and construction unions were all pressuring to get the stadium, that the mayor would be able to somehow get Silver to go along,” said Jerry Skurnick, a consultant and political analyst. “People underrated how strong-willed he is and how he is willing to take the heat.”

Proponents of the stadium deal rued Silver’s victory as one for “obstructionism,” a favorite epithet of critics of the speaker. “Sheldon Silver is just Mr. No,” said Republican political consultant Bill O’Reilly. “He’s been the biggest obstructionist in the state for more than a decade. He’s been the biggest activist for the highest taxes on business for years.”

Democrats, for their part, depict Silver as a sort of white knight in accountant’s garb. New York, they note, is a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans five to three. Yet Republicans control two of the three power centers — the state Senate and the governor’s mansion — in part through legislative districting that favors the state’s under-populated north over the teeming metropolis of New York City.

In that mix, Democrats say, it is Silver’s mastery of the political dark arts, as speaker of the Democratic-run Assembly, which gives Democrats what power they have left in the state.

“The fact that New York State still has social programs that work, there is one guy to thank for it by and large: Shelly Silver and the leadership he has displayed,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. Silver, he said, is “a fighter for social justice.”

Silver, 60, was born on the Lower East Side, where he still lives. He attends his childhood synagogue, the century-old Bialystoker Synagogue, and has lived for decades in the union-built, moderate-income Grand Street Cooperative Houses.

Silver’s longtime friend, William Rapfogel, head of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, described Silver as “very traditional” and “a quiet guy.” But for such a quiet fellow, Silver is a tough negotiator and “an incredible builder of consensus.”

“When he is focused on trying to do something that is principled, the right thing to do, he overcomes that shyness, he is extraordinarily persuasive,” Rapfogel said. He recalled that when they used to play softball during summers in the Catskills, Silver was known for arguing calls with the umpires.

He was first elected to the Assembly in 1976, representing a district that is heavily Hispanic and Chinese-American, along with a rapidly resurgent Jewish population that is returning to the old neighborhood he never left.

He became speaker in 1994. “He understood that if he could line up the Assembly delegations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, he’d have the critical mass to become speaker,” said one longtime political observer. The alliance rests in part on a peace deal Silver brokered between Brooklyn’s Crown Heights Jewish community, headquarters of the Lubavitch Hasidim, and the borough’s Democratic political machine, headed by Assemblyman Clarence Norman, an influential black politician.

Silver found his leadership of the Assembly challenged by fellow Democrats five years ago, but beat back what New Yorkers call “the coup.”

The head of New York’s Jewish Community Relations Council, Rabbi Michael Miller, said that Silver often has used his power to protect religious rights. After a court struck down the state’s use of its own kosher food inspectors, Silver convened Jewish organizations and constitutional experts to develop a new mechanism to protect kosher consumers, Miller said. He led the fight to enact statutes requiring employers to accommodate workers’ religious observances, bringing together the business sector, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Jews. Silver also drafted legislation barring life insurance companies from penalizing policyholders who travel to Israel.

Silver’s commitment to the old Democratic coalition of Jews, blacks and other minorities, along with organized labor and other liberal groups, prompts grumbling in some parts of the Jewish community. “His base of support overwhelmingly would be the left wing of the Democratic Party in the Democratic caucus and the black and Hispanic caucus,” said former New York mayor Edward Koch, a Democrat who frequently supports Republicans. Still, Koch describes Silver as “likable” and “effective.”

More than anything, observers say, his opposition to the stadium was good politics.

“His opposition to the stadium because monies were not being allocated appropriately to lower Manhattan guarantees he will be elected and stay in the assembly as long as he wants,” Sheinkopf said. “For his constituents, it was the right decision.”






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