Sheldon Silver first made his name at Rabbi Jacob Joseph High School on Henry Street, a 10-minute walk from the family home in Grand Street’s Hillman Houses, where he captained his basketball team.
The name didn’t travel far, not yet, not within the insular orthodox community within which Silver grew up in the 1950s.
The fourth child of Russian immigrants who had settled on the Lower East Side and prospered in the retail hardware trade, Silver earned his undergraduate degree at Yeshiva University and his law degree from Brooklyn Law School.
Within a few years, he was practicing law. His first run for office, a bid for a City Council seat when he was 30, failed. But two years later, in 1976, Silver swept to a state assembly seat. For nearly four decades, he would represent an ethnically, religiously and economically diverse district that’s now been his home for all of his 71 years.
Silver honed his political aptitudes in Albany — on occasion sizing up would-be political bedfellows, including governors, on the basketball court. The trial lawyer mastered the art of compromise — and of engineering a better deal.
In 1994, he ascended to, nominally, the second most powerful post in the state. But even among the renowned Three Men in a Room, Silver was the dean. By all accounts, his political instincts and lawyerly nous were rarely rivaled.
Still, his constituents back home could count on him. A dutiful district office measured constituents’ pulse. Silver, in turn, facilitated the funneling of millions in state dollars to his home district.
Decidedly liberal except in certain matters of crime and punishment, Silver was instrumental in keeping cornerstone rent-regulations laws in place; secured funding for universal pre-kindergarten programs years before Bill de Blasio was elected mayor; and helped broker development disputes at the World Trade Center.
Silver withstood or, more often, derailed or defeated efforts to weaken his hold on the legislature. He rebuffed charges of conflicts of interest and repelled an attempted putsch from upstate legislators. He also withstood accusations of having brushed aside allegations of sexual harassment and assault by, first, his chief counsel and, later, another Democratic assemblyman.
But nearly a year ago, Silver’s cloak of impenetrability finally cracked. The longtime assemblyman was arrested on charges of taking nearly $4 million in kickbacks from two law firms in exchange for state contracts.
Despite the charges, Silver’s appeal — as well as his influence and authority — endured, sufficiently enough that he was reelected to his 11th term as speaker of the Assembly 18 months after federal officials had begun looking into Silver’s purported law practice.
He was convicted on all counts November 30.
“Today, Sheldon Silver got justice, and at long last, so did the people of New York,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office prosecuted the charges against Silver.
A day after his conviction — and consequent automatic dismissal from the assembly — Silver filed for his state pension.
But the man who had made his name on the Lower East Side’s basketball courts a half-century earlier could face a lengthy prison term when he sentenced next year.
Prosecutors could yet ask that Silver forfeit those benefits.