The guilty verdict that ended Sheldon Silver’s 40-year tenure as an assemblyman this week brought back memories of the iron clad grip the all-powerful speaker had on his Democratic members in Queens.
Years before Silver was found guilty of federal corruption charges and extorting $4 million in exchange for using his position to promote cancer research and real estate projects, he was the most feared man in Albany. Members of the Queens delegation complained about waiting outside his office to see him only to watch several lobbyists ushered into the inner sanctum before the elected officials.
Frustration over the Brooklyn assemblyman’s secretive leadership style and his reluctance to share power boiled over in May 2000 when the Queens Democratic Party boss pledged 14 of the borough’s 16 Assembly members would back a coup to unseat Silver.
A political brawl erupted on the Assembly floor as Silver’s allies beat back the insurrection, which wounded three of the Queens members. The shaken speaker was intent on retribution.
At the last minute U.S. Rep. Tom Manton, head of the Queens Dems, made a backroom deal with Silver to stand down and side with the devil.
But three members of the borough delegation refused to buckle—Anthony Seminerio of Richmond Hill, Barbara Clark of Queens Village and Nettie Mayersohn of Fresh Meadows—earning Silver’s wrath.
Seminerio was dismissed as assistant majority leader, while Clark and Mayersohn were removed as committee chairwomen. All lost sizable stipends. Seminerio told this newspaper he wore the rebellion “as a badge of courage” because Silver refused to listen to his membership and “showed no respect.”
But in 2009 Seminerio pleaded guilty to setting up a consulting firm to sell his influence as a legislator and died in jail two years later.
Clark remains in office as a strong education advocate and Mayersohn, the author of the Baby AIDS bill, retired in 2011.
In the scramble for position after the failed coup, Flushing Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin and his St. Albans colleague, Bill Scarborough, were each named head of a committee.
But McLaughlin, who helped bring down Seminerio by wearing a wire, pleaded guilty to racketeering in 2009 and served six years in the federal pen. Scarborough has just begun a 13-month jail term for falsifying his travel expenses.
Silver’s conviction will not change the landscape in Albany until Gov. Cuomo puts tougher brakes on outside income and demands a new definition of what is illegal in the nation’s most dysfunctional legislature.