LOWER MANHATTAN — As word spread that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had been arrested on corruption charges Thursday morning, many of his Lower Manhattan constituents were dismayed, saying they feared they had lost one of the community's greatest advocates.
Silver, who has represented the Lower East Side and Downtown for nearly 40 years, has built a reputation for “getting things done” said Paul Hovitz, a longtime Community Board 1 member.
“We’re all shocked and saddened,” said Hovitz, who’s worked with Silver on various Lower Manhattan issues for more than 20 years. “He’s helped us build schools, rebuild after 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, and push for affordable housing — he’s been our champion.”
Silver turned himself in to federal authorities on Thursday to face charges that he illegally took millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks over the past 12 years, disguised as legitimate payments from two law firms.
But many Downtown residents, though shocked by the charges, still voiced support for Silver, praising his work for the community.
When school overcrowding and kindergarten waitlists sparked concerns Downtown several years ago, Silver formed a task force with community leaders to push for new schools in the area. Residents credit him with getting the Spruce Street School, P.S. 276 and the Peck Slip School built.
“He’s helped us get crossing guards on West Street, he’s secured funding for senior programs — from small issues to big issues, he was on our side,” Hovitz said.
Silver has also been a longtime advocate for affordable housing, negotiating rent protections for 3,500 residents of Battery Park City’s Gateway Plaza as the building’s owner has tried several times to turn the apartments market-rate, residents said.
Some community leaders in Chinatown say Silver has worked hard for their neighborhood as well, and credit him with helping to get the Lunar New Year approved as a potential school holiday in the city.
“Shelly has been very supportive of our community,” said Wellington Chen, the executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, a local development and advocacy group. “It’s very sad. I hope the allegations aren’t true.”
However, others in Lower Manhattan say Silver’s powerful reputation might have helped the neighborhood, but it's part of deeper corruption in state politics.
“He’s a prime player in the culture of Albany that enables big business,” said Paul Newell, the Democratic district leader for the 65th Assembly District. “I can't speak to the specific charges against the speaker, but I can say that outside income for legislators is a certain recipe for corruption.”
Newell, who previously challenged Silver in the Democratic primary for his assembly seat, said the culture of backroom negotiations, something Silver has become known for, is fueling bad politics for all New Yorkers.
Silver now faces charges for fraud, after federal prosecutors say he received bribes through work he claimed to do for a personal injury law firm and a real estate law firm. One of the schemes involved a grant that was supposed to go toward studying 9/11-related cancer but had no oversight, according to the federal complaint.
Local councilwoman Margaret Chin said in a statement that the charges are "deeply concerning," but praised Silver for his Downtown advocacy and declined to weigh in on the allegations.
"The Speaker has been a strong advocate for the Lower Manhattan community, and he has especially been a champion for local schools and affordable housing," she said. "I am personally very troubled by these allegations against the Speaker, but I will refrain from passing judgment on his current legal situation until the judicial process is complete."
State Sen. Daniel Squadron, who also represents Lower Manhattan, did not immediately return a request for comment.
While some Downtown residents said they still stand by Silver and expect him to be exonerated, others in the community were simply mourning the fall of a politician who made positive changes in Lower Manhattan.
"He's certainly been a tremendous advocate for many years," said Matt Schneider, former PTA president at P.S. 276 in Battery Park City.
"Of course it's difficult to align what he's been accused of with what we know him as. I'm most worried for losing that advocacy. I'm worried about where we'll be without him."