Reform a possibility with Silver no longer Assembly speaker, TenantsPAC wary of potential distractions from rent laws

TeantsPAC Treasurer Mike McKee (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

TeantsPAC Treasurer Mike McKee (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

After a whirlwind week that began with an arrest of one of Albany’s most powerful men and is ending with Sheldon Silver no longer having the title of Assembly speaker, what has remained up in the air is just how much actual legislation will get done as Albany is distracted by the implementation of a new speaker, and possible implementation of a new, more egalitarian power structure.

While not one to complain about reforms in Albany, the timing is naturally a concern for tenant advocates like Mike McKee, treasurer of TenantsPAC, considering the rent laws are scheduled to sunset this June.

Two weeks ago, when news of an investigation into an alleged long-running bribery and kickback scheme perpetuated by Silver started to surface, McKee said it was too soon to predict how it would affect one of Albany’s “three men in a room” – or tenants.

But as of Monday evening, some of Silver’s fellow Assembly Democrats were calling on him to resign and an idea that had been floated a day earlier to appoint five Assembly members to act as speaker while he worked to beat the rap against him had fizzled.

Democrat legislators calling for him to resign early on included Comptroller Scott Stringer, State Senator Brad Hoylman and in the Assembly, Democrats Brian Kavanagh and Keith Wright.

“He should understand that he’s lost the confidence of a majority of our conference,” the New York Times quoted Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh as saying of Sheldon Silver after a closed-door meeting on Monday night. Kavanagh did not respond to calls for comment from Town & Village.

However, by Tuesday night, Silver’s ouster (or resigning) as speaker along with an announcement that a replacement would be coming soon was pretty much a done deal, according to published reports. Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle will be interim speaker until an election is held on February 10, according to City & State.

In an official statement, Wright (who represents Harlem and is one of several potential new speakers) called for reform of the leadership structure.

“These times demand a change in leadership in order for the people’s work to move forward free of distraction and the stink of scandal,” he said.

“Collectively, we must as a body not only choose a new speaker — we must double down and reshape and reform our decision making process within our conference so that more members are heard and points and ideas are exchanged before conclusions are reached on the issues of the day.”

To accomplish this, he noted that the appointing a committee of five Assembly members to substitute for Silver wasn’t enough of a solution.

This sentiment was seconded by McKee who on Monday blasted the plan for a five-member committee as a “five-headed monster.”

But regardless of who steps in for Silver, McKee said ultimately any change in the power structure will inevitably wind up distracting lawmakers from real issues and coming up with the budget.

“It’s a mess,” he said. “You can see a lot of things falling through the cracks, like tenant protections and anything else.”

To get tenant protections strengthened, tenants, said McKee, have to get organized and put pressure on their local Assembly members, calling on them to in turn put pressure on the governor.

“Write to them, email them, phone them, picket them, whatever it takes.”

Of course, McKee always advises this — but this time, with the State Senate once again controlled by Republicans and the Assembly in disarray, it’s naturally even more urgent.

“Tenants have to get more mobilized, tenants have to get much more vigilant and much more united. They’ve got to say to their Assembly members, you’ve got to deliver. It’s life and death. They can’t move anything in the Senate. The Senate Republicans are owned by the real estate lobby and we can’t get a bill out of committee. The Senate Democrats can help with the message, but the Republicans are much more disciplined at voting as a bloc. When their leadership says this is how we’re voting, they fall in line. Democrats are much more fractious.”

Additionally, tenants, he noted, do still have some leverage, the J-51 and 4-21a tax breaks developers want, which could be traded for tenant protections like vacancy decontrol.

The only thing that’s changed is that Silver will have no real sway.

“He’ll inevitably still be a member of the Assembly, but he won’t go to Albany every week because it’s too embarrassing,” said McKee. “He would lose the office. The new speaker would move in. He would have to move into something smaller, but it looks like he’s toast.”

He added that one possible positive outcome for tenants out of Silver being out of the picture is that Governor Cuomo may become more active in pushing a progressive agenda “instead of hiding behind the Assembly.” But, noted McKee, “whether he sides with the tenants or the real estate developers who financed him remains to be seen.”

He also said the call for reform of the legislative power structure from the inside seemed promising.

“What was great about what Keith Wright said is that they want to reform the way the system operates,” McKee said. “It would be great to see these guys shake off their chains at last, instead of waiting around for instructions.”

In news related to the Silver investigation, Hoylman, who was one of the first people to publicly call for the longtime speaker’s ouster last Thursday (via unambiguous tweets) has been pushing for Albany to limit outside income earned by state lawmakers.

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