One September night in 1997, Judy Rapfogel threw a party. Press reports had just declared her the winner in a tight Democratic primary race to represent Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the New York City Council, effectively making the seat hers in the heavily Democratic town. Her boss, the new State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, had put his formidable political machine behind her campaign. And that night, it seemed the machine had proved its worth.
But the festivities didn’t last long. Elections officials soon uncovered an error in the vote count, and Rapfogel conceded a week later.
“I’m very pleased that many of my supporters got to share a victory night, but the period following, the uncertainty of the following days, was very difficult,” Rapfogel told Newsday in 2001.
Frustrated in her bid for a seat of her own, Rapfogel soon returned to exercising her considerable political skills backstage — and in the years since that ill-fated race, the tough, plainspoken operative has accumulated more power than she may ever have achieved otherwise.
Indeed, through her position as Silver’s chief of staff, Rapfogel has for many years arguably been the most powerful woman in New York State politics. Meanwhile, until 15 months ago, her husband, William Rapfogel, ran the fast-growing Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, one of the city’s largest charities, thanks in part to numerous government grants and contracts.
In the past year and a half, all this has begun to crumble around Judy Rapfogel’s shoulders. In July 2014 her husband was sentenced to prison for taking kickbacks as executive director and CEO of Met Council. He is now serving time in a medium security state prison in Wallkill, New York.
Then, on January 22, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara unveiled a criminal complaint against the previously untouchable Silver, accusing him of taking millions in bribes and kickbacks. The charges Bharara outlined could carry decades of jail time if Silver is convicted. Silver has denied the charges.
Judy Rapfogel, whose office did not respond to a request for comment for this article, has not been implicated in either scandal. Yet she now finds herself at the center of both of them. Together they have brought down the Lower East Side’s long reign as a locus of political clout, and have blown up Judy Rapfogel’s own life.
The Met Council case has drawn particular attention to the low-profile political power broker. Investigators found $400,000 in cash stashed in homes she shared with her husband. And The New York Times reported in October that Judy Rapfogel’s 1997 City Council campaign spent a disproportionate amount of its budget on automobile insurance purchased through the same firm that paid the kickbacks to her husband. A spokesman for her told the Times she had no knowledge of the payments.
The Silver and Rapfogel scandals are deeply intertwined: Both men are lifelong friends and political allies who grew up together on the Lower East Side. Countless political favors passed between them. Yet no connection is more obvious than Judy Rapfogel herself, Silver’s most senior aide and the third leg of the powerful political triumvirate.
Judy Rapfogel herself is an enigma. Famous for her love of the hard-to-find diet soda Tab and her fierce devotion to Silver, the 60-year-old political operative is little known beyond Albany and her haunts on the Lower East Side. Though she operates as Silver’s public face, she has almost no public profile. And though she’s been married to William Rapfogel since the two were in their late teens, her political style and his are near-opposites.
The daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, Judy Rapfogel grew up in New Jersey as Judy Hirshman. She and her husband have three grown children and live in an apartment in the same Lower East Side co-op complex as Silver, in the neighborhood where both Silver and William Rapfogel grew up. They have a vacation home at a Monticello, New York, bungalow colony.
William Rapfogel, before his arrest and guilty plea, was known for his smooth style, from his punctiliously combed hair to his gentle way of grooming political allies. Judy Rapfogel is, as some who know her say, more blunt and forthright.
“Willy’s very suave and savvy — I would say diplomatic, politically correct,” said one person who knows the couple from the Lower East Side and who asked not to be named in order to protect relationships. “[Judy] is more tell-you-like-it-is, and openly cutthroat.”
Judy Rapfogel has been Silver’s chief of staff since the start of his political career in 1976, when she was in her early 20s. Unlike many chiefs of staff in the state legislature, Rapfogel stuck with the lawmaker who hired her, running his office when he was a lowly member of the Democratic caucus, and then later, when he was elected speaker in 1994 and ascended to the exalted status of being one of the so-called “three men in a room” whose negotiations drive much of Albany’s legislative activity.
“She’s in some ways Shelly’s alter ego,” said Richard Brodsky, who served in the assembly from 2003 to 2010. “She has a very tough job. She’s warm and supportive. She’s family oriented. But she’s a tough cookie.”
Much of the speaker’s power in the assembly derives from the authority the position gives him to hand out benefits to members of his party caucus. David Weprin, a sitting assemblyman who represents a district in Queens and whose father was Silver’s predecessor as speaker, said that part of Judy Rapfogel’s role was managing relationships with those caucus members. “She plays a pretty active role in representing members interests… regarding legislation, as well as regarding other issues involving being up in Albany… committee chairmanships to parking spots to seats in the chamber,” Weprin said.
Silver, taciturn by nature, is not known for his glad-handing skills. It is his chief of staff who is often tasked with carrying news for the speaker, whether it be a friendly word or a harsh rebuke.
“Shelly has always been the behind-the-scenes, unassuming guy,” said the person who knows the Rapfogels from the Lower East Side. “She’s the one who told everyone what the deal was. She’s… always been the person you want to be careful around.”
The job has its compensations. For years, Judy Rapfogel has been one of the top-paid staff members in the assembly. An Albany Times-Union report in January 2013 said that she and Silver’s counsel both earned $165,000 per year. A 2009 report in the same paper said that she was the only member of an assembly Democrat’s staff to have been given a state-owned car, a 2003 Chevrolet Impala.
William Rapfogel’s Met Council received tens of millions of dollars in state funding through the state legislature — some of it in the form of so-called member items, allocations that lawmakers dole out to not-for-profit groups entirely at their personal discretion after Silver decides how much each lawmaker gets for this purpose. Member-item expenditures were effectively ended in 2011. But according to a September 2013 report in Newsday, when they were in force, Judy Rapfogel sat in on meetings of Manhattan’s assembly Democrats where they were discussed. Legislators there often decided to send funds to Met Council.
“Never did Judy or the speaker ask me to give money to Met Council,” an unnamed former assembly member told Newsday. “Now, did I, as a political person, think it was in my best interests to support Met Council? Sure.”
Now, Judy Rapfogel is using her years of political experience to try to save what’s left of her dissolving power. The New York Post reported on January 25 that she sat in on a January 22 meeting of assembly Democrats at which the caucus affirmed its support for Silver despite his indictment.
Silver and Judy Rapfogel’s positions have weakened since then. On January 26, Silver’s office announced a deal that would have seen a group of five senior Democrats take on the speaker’s duties pending resolution of his legal issues. Under that arrangement, Silver would have remained the nominal speaker, and Rapfogel would have retained her position of power.
But this deal seems to have crumbled. On January 27, news reports from Albany indicated that Silver would be replaced as speaker in a February 10 vote by members of the Democratic caucus, ending his, and Judy Rapfogel’s, two-decade reign.
Even so, her name continues to carry weight. “Right now, she still has power, and they know that,” one lobbyist who works in Albany said. Reflecting that reality, he, too, asked not to be named in order to protect relationships. “I guarantee you, if anyone speaks out against Shelly she’s taking names. And no one wants to piss her off.”
Whether that will remain true after February 10 remains to be seen.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.