Shell game: Selection, not election, will decide Silver’s successor

Downtown Express file photo by Jefferson Siegel Longtime Assemblyman Sheldon Silver leaved the federal courthouse Downtown where her was convicted Monday on seven counts of corruption

Downtown Express file photo by Jefferson Siegel
Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver represented Lower Manhattan for nearly four decades before his conviction on federal corruption charges in November.

BY JOSH ROGERS |

So who is going to be picking the successor to Shelly Silver, the former assemblymember who was convicted last month on corruption charges?

If you are following the story, you already know it won’t be voters. Members of the Democratic County Committee from Silver’s 65th assembly district in Lower Manhattan will effectively crown the next legislator early next year when they select the party’s nominee for the April 19 special election, since the district is overwhelmingly Democratic and the Republican nominee stands little chance to win.

But at least the public can easily see who the committee members are, right?

Well, no.

The city’s Board of Elections sent me its most complete list, but the information is not readily available online. And the names of nearly 20 percent of the committee members — those filling vacancies — may stay hidden from the public before the anointing.

Cathleen McCadden, executive director of the Manhattan Democratic County Committee, said it is up to the local district leaders to fill committee vacancies, and many prefer not to release the names.

“It’s the only power that they have,” she told me.

Indeed one Downtown Democratic district leader, who was inclined to send me the most up-to-date list, told me there was resistance from fellow district leaders. But the County Committee’s leaders, if they were inclined, could also get the names to the public if they wanted.

They don’t.

There are 39 listed vacancies for the district’s 196 seats on the County Committee. Most members are not well known, but there are others who have been active in the community or in local politics, such as Virginia Kee in Chinatown, John Fratta in the Seaport, Diem Boyd on the Lower East Side, Tom Goodkind in Battery Park City, and Judy Rapfogel, a former Albany power broker who was Silver’s chief of staff for about two decades while he was Assembly speaker.

Despite calls to let voters play the central role in filling legislative vacancies, McCadden defended the current system, particularly in this case, since the new incumbent will likely face a Democratic primary next September, only five months after taking office.

“They’ll only be in office for a hot second,” she said.

But Susan Lerner, executive director with Common Cause New York, which has long backed more democratic ways to fill legislative vacancies, said “even a short[-term] incumbent is able to arrange things within their district for an advantage.”

One of the reasons there has been no reform, Lerner said, is that so many state legislators first get into office through a special election and are reluctant to change a system from which they benefitted.

Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal from the Upper West Side is the exception. She won the political insider game in 2006, but saw the problem with the system.

“When I did run for the vacancy, a lot of people were disgruntled by the process,” said Rosenthal, a former County Committee member.

Soon after taking office she sponsored legislation that would require a primary and special election to fill a vacant seat, but it went nowhere. This session, she and state Sen. Daniel Squadron are sponsoring bills that would set up non-partisan special elections to fill legislative vacancies.  Candidates would collect signatures to get on the ballot.

“It’s a big concern that the process to fill vacancies is so complicated and obscure, especially after the year Albany’s had,” Squadron said in a statement, making a clear reference to the federal convictions of two of Albany’s “Three Men in a Room,” Silver and former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

Two of the four candidates to replace Silver, Paul Newell and Jenifer Rajkumar, have an advantage in the race as district leaders who helped form the committee picking the nominee, and will also likely fill some of the remaining committee vacancies.

Both said in interviews this week that they supported a more democratic way to fill legislative vacancies. Yuh-Line Niou and Don B. Lee have also expressed strong interest in running.

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