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Democrats in Assembly announce plan to replace Silver as speaker

via Flickr
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (right), D-Manhattan, at the State of the State last week.

Updated, 7:46 p.m.

Democrats in the state Assembly have emerged from two days of closed door discussions on whether, then how, to remove and replace the leader of their conference, who has been charged with corruption.

Assemblyman Joe Morelle, the majority leader from Rochester, told reporters Tuesday evening that Sheldon Silver will be removed from his post.

"On Monday, there will be a vacancy in the office of speaker," he said.

Morelle will serve as speaker in the interim and then a new election will be held Feb. 10, according to Morelle, who said he spoke with Silver earlier in the day.

"The speaker will not impede the transition," Morelle said, though he was cryptic about just how Silver would relinquish power.

Morelle and others confirmed that Silver will remain as speaker until Monday, but would not say whether the speaker would formally hand in his resignation or whether the Assembly Democrats will vote to oust him from the post. 

Several members, including Morelle, have been jostling for the support needed to be installed as the new speaker. Downstate Democrats hold a powerful sway over the Legislature's lower chamber though, so it may be difficult for him to hold onto the post.

Keith Wright, Joe Lentol and Carl Heatsie are all vying for the position as well.

When Silver is replaced, it be by the first new leader of Assembly in two decades. Silver, 70, is from Manhattan and has been one of the state's most powerful politicians since he was first elected speaker in 1994. He was arrested Thursday on several corruption charges.

He faces five federal charges including conspiracy and bribery and is accused of using his position to obtain millions of dollars in kickbacks masked as legitimate income from two law firms. He has denied the accusations against him.

Our original post from Tuesday afternoon:

Assembly Democrats are meeting again at the capitol this afternoon to try to resolve what’s become a leadership crisis after Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested and charged with engineering a major corruption scheme.

Today's closed door meetings and political maneuverings come after lawmaker met for about five hours Monday to discuss leadership. Support for Silver that came initially after his arrest quickly dissolved over the weekend.

It's become increasingly unlikely Silver will be able to maintain his role as speaker while he fights federal corruption charges. His suggestion of a committee of lawmakers filling in for him in budget negotiations was shot down by the governor and fellow lawmakers.

Just who would replace Silver remains a mystery, as several possible replacements have surfaced and alliances are forming. No lawmaker has the clear majority needed to be elected speaker yet, according to reports.

Assemblyman Keith Wright of Manhattan, a former state Democratic committee co-chair, was the first of a growing number of Assembly members calling for Silver to resign his post, saying if the speaker remained, the chamber would be “mired in the swamp of dysfunction and chaos.”

“Stability is a factor, certainly, and we have to come to some stability," added Wright. "We have too much work to do for all the people we represent."

Wright has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Silver, along with the Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, from Rochester. Others have more actively come out and said they want the position, including Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who chairs the powerful codes committee.

"I think I have more to offer than of the other candidates, but I haven’t campaigned actively while the speaker is still in office," he said this morning, "so it may keep me behind the others, but I expect in the end I will prevail."

Syracuse Democrat Bill Magnarelli today called on Silver to step down, joining fellow central New York Democrat Al Stirpe, who did so yesterday.

"There is no doubt that the events of the last week have severely hampered the ability of the Assembly to continue the business of the people of New York state," Magnarelli said in a statement. "I agree with the overwhelming consensus of the Assembly body that it is best for the Speaker to step aside and allow new leadership to conduct the important business of this chamber."

The mechanics of how Silver would be replaced remain a topic of much discussion behind those closed doors. 

"We have just been discussing process and the possible resolution, if there would be an interim speaker, should the speaker resign. And also how long an interim speaker might serve," said Phil Steck, an Assemblyman from the Capital Region Tuesday afternoon, adding: "Some members would like to have an election right away, whereas others would like to see a longer time for discussion and vetting of possible candidates."

Democrats say they hope that by this evening, they can reach some sort of conclusion.

Silver, who has been speaker for 21 years, faces five federal charges including conspiracy and bribery and is accused of using his position to obtain millions of dollars in kickbacks masked as legitimate income from two law firms.

The 70-year-old Manhattan Democrat was released on $200,000 bail after being arrested last week. He has been at the Capitol for discussions with his Democratic conference.

"I am the speaker," Silver reportedly told reporters still at the capitol late Monday. "I’m standing. And I’m going to be standing for a long time."

Good government groups have begun calling for the negotiations to be open to the public and press.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.