WHEN (WHAT WAS THEN) "PROTECT" BEAT SHELDON SILVER
(PROTECT—January 23, 2015) The New York political establishment went into shock yesterday, when Sheldon Silver, the long-time boss of the New York state Assembly, was hauled off in handcuffs, charged by federal authorities with taking millions in illegal kickbacks. The move by prosecutors also rocked the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who now faces grave questions about why he abruptly shut down a commission that was investigating state government corruption last year.
Sheldon Silver and PROTECT clashed in 2006, when PROTECT went up against the powerful New York boss and shocked political insiders by winning.
The fight was launched by an extraordinary opinion column in the New York Times by PROTECT national advisory board member Andrew Vachss. "What if I told you that a father who was regularly raping his 8-year-old daughter could reasonably expect to avoid prison if he were discovered?" Vachss wrote in his opening.
"In over 30 years in politics and advocacy, I have never seen a single op ed have the impact this piece did," says PROTECT executive director Grier Weeks. "It should be used in college political science courses."
Within a week, at least a half dozen New York legislators, Democrat and Republican, contacted PROTECT offering to introduce legislation. We chose bipartisan sponsors and hammered out the language, which we called the Circle of Trust bill.
PROTECT got the Circle of Trust bill through the New York Senate by a unanimous vote. (It was no easy fight, but once victory was certain, not a soul wanted to be caught opposing us.) Then we moved on to the New York Assembly and hit a massive wall named Sheldon Silver. Silver was blocking the bill's progress, and neither Democratic nor Republican allies could do a thing about it.
We began a countdown. A look through PROTECT's archives finds a newswire report from May 22, 2006, announcing a PROTECT press conference in Albany:
"Speakers will call upon New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to stop blocking the Circle of Trust bill. It has now been 111 days since the landmark legislation was introduced. Despite broad bipartisan support—the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 58-0—Silver has used his iron grip on the legislative process to prevent a free and fair vote on the bill."
That press conference brought national news attention, and the pressure increased. But Silver's power in Albany was so strong Democrats apologized privately and Republicans didn't hold out much hope.
Then the Sheldon Silver machine made a huge blunder.
On a spring morning, PROTECT campaigners Alison Arngrim and Kim Talman were working the halls of the New York state capitol, and got a meeting with Silver's staff. Pushed by the two, a top aide to Silver finally provided an explanation for Silver's opposition: eliminating the foul incest loophole would hurt the ability of a brother and sister to marry!
It was a stupid, irrelevant and completely incorrect statement. If there was any logic to the statement at all, it simply showed that for some callous and disconnected political animals, even obscure philosophical hypotheticals are more important than protecting children from rape.
Arngrim called PROTECT headquarters immediately to report the stunning statement. We weighed whether to go public. But before we could formulate a plan, Arngrim recounted the comment to Fox News. A no-doubt gleeful news crew called Silver's office and got no denial. Silver's operatives just couldn't wrap their heads around the idea that incest against children mattered politically... or that they were about to get beat.
When the news went national that Sheldon Silver really was taking a pro-incest position, he let his grip on the bill slip. It began to move, and it soon passed the house by a vote of 141-0. We won. You can read a detailed account of that campaign here.
Looking back on it, perhaps a bag of unmarked bills could have made the New York Assembly a safer place for children... and saved PROTECT a lot of time and effort.
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