Former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, was convicted Monday on seven counts involving his corrupt abuse of office. A “sphinx-like power broker,” a “master of political chess,” Silver was renown his ability to keep his true objectives hidden while directly controlling billions of state funding. This strategy yielded unchecked power that made possible his corruption, and it lies at the heart of Albany’s corrupt ways.
Shelly’s modus operandi isn’t novel to his time or even democratic institutions, but is typical of politics defined by patronage. Shelly excelled at robust action, a strategy originally discussed by Padgett and Ansell in their analysis of the rise of the Medicis in 15th Century Florence. Robust action is the ability to exploit a central position among weaker clients by making contradictory promises of future support. This is technically known as multivocal signaling but colloquially as “talking out of both sides of one’s mouth” or “playing both sides”. This a brokerage strategy enables a patron to maximize freedom of action while avoiding present commitments to clients that limit future choices.
When we think about the power of Shelly, we’re really considering his mastery of robust action and control over his own patronage network. As “the Sphinx”, Shelly never revealed his true interests during the all-important budgetary and legislative cycles. He promises his supporters that he’ll do the best he can in the context of ‘three-men-and-a-room’, the backroom negotiating process that defines Albany lawmaking. If he can’t pass a client’s interests into law, he blames it on the Governor and the Senate Majority Leader and says maybe next time.
That doesn’t mean that all clients are equal. Some have resources and influence that Shelly himself needs, and so they tend to get rewarded than their weaker counterparts. The opaqueness of Shelly’s intentions as well as the secrecy that involves negotiations among the leaders and governor serves to conceal the true nature of alliances and loyalties within the Capitol.
Take two clients of Shelly’s patronage with diametrically opposed interests: the renters lobby and the real estate lobby. Every few years, these interest groups battle over new rent regulations and tax loopholes and abatements that developers use to reduce property taxes on luxury housing.
As the legislature’s leading Democrat, Shelly’s liberal-progressive ideology would suggest that he (and the New York City dominated legislature) would go to bat for the renters, who represent the working and middle class of the five boroughs. Yet millions in potential campaign donations and the support of the most powerful and wealthy landlords in North America make the real estate lobby a potential friend of anyone in Albany.
We always wondered how Shelly managed to juggle these competing interests while bargaining with the Governor and the State. Generally the tenants always got the raw end of the deal, and now we know why. Shelly made millions in legal referrals for tax certiorari work initiated by Glenwood Management, the state’s top political donor (they gave a million to Cuomo in the 2014 cycle). Part of Preet Bharara’s successful conviction of Shelly stems from the implicit quid pro quo offered in this deal: Shelly gets referrals from NYC real estate while he looks out for them in Albany.
Shelly always told the tenants the Assembly was on their side, and then they learned he played them the whole time. His arrest and indictment led renters’ advocates to wonder why Shelly got minimal positive changes to rent regulations in 2011, yet spun the outcome as a great victory in the defense of affordable housing.
“Silver was not forthcoming about what he was working to achieve,” McKee says. “Silver always presented himself as pro-tenant, but who knows what happened behind closed doors?”
Shelly’s game was multivocal signaling, promising competing clients to support one side against the other while veiling his final position. His ability to engage in robust action is a function of his centralized and personal control of budgets and lawmaking, which was sold to a handful of other highly influential actors while making promises to weaker ones which were never fulfilled.
While we should damn Shelly for his monumental corruption, we should take a lesson from his lawyer’s defense during the just completed trial. Steven Molo argued that Silver was just following the ways of Albany, that his activities were just the way business is done.
And he’s absolutely right. But the problem isn’t simply the illegal actions of Silver (and perhaps the entire process of Albany lawmaking). Albany’s corruption relates to the way state government concentrates power in the hands of its leaders, a system that Peter Galie has called “democratic centralism.” The fact that lawmaking takes place via backroom negotiations rather than through an institutionalized legislative process of budget drafting and ending in a conference committee enables leaders like Shelly to pick and choose winners and losers based on who provides the most personal benefit.
Of course, democratic centralism isn’t the only problem. Leaders are incentivized to string social advocates along while rewarding New York’s power elite because the latter line the pols pockets, legally or illegally. Not only must the secretive process of lawmaking be transformed to prevent double-dealing, but so must the campaign finance system, so that representatives no longer have an incentive to choose the few while making empty promises to the many. That includes a system of public campaign financing which would dilute the monopoly on campaign participation currently held by powerful interests like the real estate lobby.
Short of a popular rebellion against Albany, don’t hold your breath waiting for that.