* Speaker, a cautious lawyer, seen weathering ethics probes
* NYC poor, tenants, unions and students stand to lose
* Speaker shielded unions from 401(k) retirement plan option
By Joan Gralla
Sept 17 (Reuters) - New York Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver likely will survive ethics probes of the settlement of sexual harassment charges against a fellow Democratic assemblyman, but Silver could lose some of his clout in dealing with Governor Andrew Cuomo on difficult issues, including the budget, pol i tical consultants and academics said.
Silver, who represents lower Manhattan, has been a forceful advocate for students, unions, tenants and the poor since he was elected speaker in 1994.
The 68-year old is known for his ability to come out ahead in backroom deals reached by the three most powerful state politicians - the governor, the speaker and the senate majority leader. The secret decisions taken by these so-called “three men in a room” have prompted much criticism from civic advocates.
But Shelly, as fans and rivals call Silver, has been hurt by his agreement to keep confidential a $103,000 settlement - mostly paid with public funds - of sexual harassment charges against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn Democrat. Lopez is now facing new sexual accusations from two female interns.
None of the half a dozen experts interviewed expect Silver to lose his position as speaker - unless the ethics probes uncover criminal wrongdoing or lead to sanctions.
Such a development would be a shock - even in a state in which former Governor Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, resigned in 2008 amid a prostitution scandal - because the speaker is a lawyer known for his caution and scrupulous attention to detail.
“At this point, nothing is going to happen to Shelly,” said George Arzt, a political consultant.
But Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who eclipsed Silver’s position as the state’s top Democrat after winning election in 2010, stands to gain further traction.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, has less to gain because he controls the Senate with only a two-seat majority - and faces a possible upset in November’s election.
“To the extent that Shelly is weakened, I think it is vis-à-vis the governor,” said Douglas Muzzio, a public affairs professor at Baruch College/CUNY.
Over the years, Silver has had an immense impact on the finances of the state and New York City.
This spring, he rejected Cuomo’s plan to offer public workers an optional 401(k) plan. That reduced the amount of savings in a new law, which cut benefits for future hires.
Last week, Cuomo publicly defended the speaker, telling TALK 1300 radio that the settlement was not “a secret deal done by Sheldon Silver” because the offices of the attorney general and state comptroller were also involved.
Experts said the support Cuomo gave Silver then created a chit the governor at some point will collect.
“The governor provides support at a key moment and then Shelly knows he has to deliver... that debt won’t be forgotten and it won’t be forgiven,” said one analyst, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Silver has already compromised with the governor on key issues - such as linking teacher evaluations to tests. Though Silver wanted to raise income taxes for the wealthy, he agreed to Cuomo’s bill that cut income taxes for the middle class.
The teacher evaluation measure, along with the pension cuts for new hires and the failure to make the rich pay higher taxes, were unpopular with the unions that are among the Assembly Democrats’ most important constituencies.
Silver has been such a powerful speaker, partly because of his tight control of the Democratic Assembly majority. He is highly skilled at getting bills enacted and has an unparalleled understanding of the arcane aspects of the state budget, according to Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant.
But at times, Silver has put election or other considerations ahead of New York City’s interests, critics say. For example, the speaker’s decision in a 1999 election campaign to support abolishing a commuter tax cost the city $360 million in annual revenue that has never been replaced.
“That is one of the things that - being an old Roman Catholic - that is a mortal sin, and there are no indulgences for that particular mortal sin,” Baruch College/CUNY’s Muzzio said.
Silver also felled two of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s prized initiatives - a football stadium on Manhattan’s west side and a congestion pricing plan that would have raised revenue for mass transit by charging motorists fees for driving into midtown.
The speaker’s decision to kill the new football stadium pleased residents who feared the traffic it would create; the congestion pricing fees Bloomberg wanted were deeply unpopular.
Silver’s spokesman declined to comment, but cited Silver’s accomplishments, including winning a sharp increase in aid for poor schools, boosting safety net programs, extending New York City’s rent regulations that benefit tenants and helping students afford tuition at public colleges.
Silver’s plan to push the Republican-led state Senate into raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour from $7.25 after the November elections probably has become more of an uphill battle, the experts said.