Sheldon Silver, who for more than two decades as New York State Assembly Speaker led the Lower East Side of Manhattan to the benefit of all its people – while also supporting the great institutions of the local Jewish community – died on Monday, less than a month before his 78th birthday, at Nashoba Valley Medical Center, which serves the Devens Federal Medical Center in Ayer, Mass.
An Orthodox Jew, the son of Russian immigrants, Silver was born on the Lower East Side. He graduated from Rabbi Jacob Joseph High School on Henry Street (he was captain of the basketball team), and from Yeshiva University. He earned his law degree from Brooklyn Law School in 1968. Eight years later, in 1976, he was first elected to the State Assembly. In 1991, Silver became chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and in 1994 was elevated to Speaker of the Assembly, a post he held until 2015. During lean years for the Democratic party, Silver was considered the most powerful Democrat in New York State, with the access his position afforded him to national politics. He regularly played basketball with the late Governor Mario Cuomo and former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi.
Silver and his schoolteacher wife Rosa lived in the Grand Street coops, where everyone’s humble apartments were more or less the same (even the breakthroughs), no matter how rich or powerful the tenants were.
As Speaker, Silver remained as close to Jewish values as was politically feasible. He was behind the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York State in 1995 (it was eventually ruled unconstitutional in 2004 by the State’s Court of Appeals). The law required that juries in capital cases would be instructed that if they have deadlocked between sentencing the guilty defendant to life without parole or to death, the judge in the case would sentence the same defendant to life with parole after 20 to 25 years. The high court didn’t like Silver’s encouraging the Jury to consider the outcome of not sentencing the defendant to death.
Silver was a key advocate of state-administered rent regulation of New York apartments. At the same time, fearing the loss of social balance among the various ethnic groups in his district, and striving to preserve and protect the Jewish community there, he opposed the creation of more low-income housing in a multi-block area of razed tenements along Grand Street (mind you, the Lower East Side already was second only to Harlem in the number of public housing structures in Manhattan).
In 1999, Silver was behind the repeal of New York City’s commuter tax on non-residents working in Manhattan. The repeal benefited commuters from New Jersey and Long Island, which included a very large percentage of Jews. Later, in 2007, for the same reason, Silver torpedoed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing program for Manhattan, using his authority as Speaker to avoid a vote on the measure until it died.
On January 7, 2015, Silver was re-elected Speaker of the New York State Assembly for the 11th time, with near-unanimous support from the Democratic majority, even though there already were rumors about a federal probe into his affairs. On January 22, Silver was arrested on seven federal corruption charges. It should be noted that considering the amount of power Silver wielded in New York State over the decades, those charges amounted to a relatively measly few dollars: less than $5 million in referral fees over several years from a small law firm specializing in asbestos litigation, and a $750,000 profit from illegal investments – the kind of charges for which most white-collar defendants receive minimal sentences.
On January 30, 2015, Silver submitted his resignation. After his conviction and the appeal that resulted in overturning some of the charges, on July 20, 2020, Silver was sentenced to six and a half years and a million-dollar fine. He reported to the federal prison at Otisville, New York, on August 26, 2020, and from there was transferred to Federal Medical Center, Devens in May of 2021.
The Jews of the Lower East Side lost a devoted leader.
May his memory be blessed.