Time for Assembly speaker to step down

Thank goodness Vito Lopez has left the Capitol building and is now an ex-assemblyman. Hopefully he took with him the notion that people in positions of power are entitled to grope, leer at and otherwise harass their staff members.

Now it’s time for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to pay the price for helping Mr. Lopez: arranging to pay two victims more than $100,000 to keep quiet, and letting Mr. Lopez keep his job without discipline.

That hush money came from state coffers. It was people’s taxes. Mr. Silver is comfortably well off; if he was going to bribe someone, he could’ve at least used his own cash.

His public apology this week does next to nothing. This act is bad enough for him to resign from the Assembly completely, as Mr. Lopez had to, but at least he should step down as speaker.

In the view of people like us, who believe legislative leadership roles should have term limits so they can be rotated around, Mr. Silver should have stepped aside long ago, controversy or no. But even people who are OK with the possibility that a single assemblyman can have a near life term in one of the state’s three most powerful jobs certainly feel that there must be some boundaries, some lines that one cannot cross without losing that position.

It seems obvious to us that bribing a lecherous legislator’s victims to keep quiet crosses one of those lines.

When Mr. Silver became aware of the sexual harassment claims, it was his responsibility, as leader of the chamber, to make sure they were treated according to the proper channels. Instead, he went to great lengths to protect a fellow New York City Democratic Party power broker from scrutiny. While he was doing that, Mr. Lopez reportedly hired new female staffers and continued to do the same or worse to them and others.

Mr. Silver used his power as head of the Assembly to enable Mr. Lopez’s lechery, at the expense of women, taxpayers and the people’s trust in state government.

Other state power brokers may have been involved with the hush money as well, at least in the sense that they knew about it and didn’t stand up to Mr. Silver. They’ll have to answer for it, too.

Mr. Silver has held his current position for more than 18 years, frequently attracting controversy but rarely scandal. Yet if you hang around long enough wielding that much power, you’re bound to do something scandalous sooner or later. And he has.

During those years he has accumulated enough power that some apparently see him as “too big to fail.” That is, needless to say, bad for democracy.

It’s especially true since the Assembly speaker leads 150 times the number of people who have any power over him at the voting booth. Mr. Silver is one of 150 Assembly members, each of whom represents, on average, only 128,600 New Yorkers. Unlike the governor, who derives his office from voters throughout New York’s 19.6 million diverse people, Mr. Silver is elected by a localized group of Manhattan residents who are not typical of the state as a whole. Yet he has huge power over all of us.

The Senate has adopted an eight-year limit on leadership positions into its rules, and there’s a bill out there to cap both houses’ leadership posts at 12 years – too long. We hope Mr. Silver’s example is used to enact an eight-year limit.

To be fair, the fact that it is elected officials who choose legislative leaders gives an indirect democracy, similar to that of Supreme Court and cabinet appointments as well as parliamentary prime ministers. But in state lawmaking, we can and should have more democracy, more checks and balances.

If Mr. Silver doesn’t step down willingly, he may be forced to go unwillingly, and then may lose his Assembly seat as well. It’s time for a change at the top of the Assembly – with more changes to follow at regular, frequent intervals.