People scurried from all corners of the Capitol this week to see something that has not happened in eons: In the state Senate, two of New York’s nastier political puppets cut their strings and danced to their own tune.
The result was that the Republican Party, which lost control of the chamber five months ago after 40 years in power, regained a governing majority. Pedro Espada Jr. of The Bronx and Hiram Monserrate of Queens defected from the Democrats to form a 32-30 majority coalition with the Republicans. Espada was promptly rewarded with the title of temporary Senate President, though real power seems to rest with Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican.
I say “seems to rest” because the aftermath of the coup would better suit the dateline Albania rather than Albany. (No insult to Albania is intended.) When Republicans abruptly called for a vote to replace the chamber’s leadership, Senate Democrats turned off the lights and walked out — taking the keys with them.
Espada and Monserrate insist they are still Democrats. In the world of New York clubhouse politics, however, they likely have no chance whatsoever of being renominated by the party that dominates their districts.
Almost nobody in Albany opposes a party leader without permission, which is sometimes granted for appearances’ sake. New York has the odd practice of varying a legislator’s salary according to committee chairmanships and other duties — which are determined by party leaders. Lawmakers also must make nice to their leadership in order to be awarded state slush funds, better known as “member items,” to hand out in their districts. This enables legislators to build the patronage base that entrenches them, and their parties’ leaders, in power.
But Monserrate and Espada are special cases. Monserrate, a first-term senator, recently was indicted on charges that he slashed his girlfriend’s face with broken glass in a jealous rage. Both he and the girlfriend, who declined to press charges, have said it was an accident. Sen. Malcolm Smith, the Democrat who ran the Senate before this week’s coup, withheld a lucrative committee chairmanship from Monserrate — who now has his revenge.
Espada has been assessed at least $73,000 in fines and penalties for failing to file campaign finance reports. Smith also called him on the carpet recently for failing to establish a campaign committee, while the Bronx District Attorney reportedly is investigating whether Espada actually lives in Mamaroneck in suburban Westchester County, rather than in his Bronx district as the law requires.
None of which stopped Republicans from joining forces with Monserrate and Espada to regain power. Suddenly, bipartisanship is in style in the Senate.
The spring legislative session is just a few weeks from its scheduled conclusion in any event. The Republican takeover seems to be too late to stop an already-approved set of tax increases, mostly aimed at high income New Yorkers but also at employers and self-employed workers in metropolitan New York City. But it complicates efforts to bolster the city’s finances in the face of the Wall Street downturn, and also raises questions about whether legalization of gay marriage — already approved in the Assembly — will reach a Senate vote.
The real winner in all this is Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from lower Manhattan. The Assembly remains under his iron thumb, while the Senate thrashes and the state’s accidental governor, David Paterson, lurches from gaffe to gaffe. We may not know who has the Senate’s spare key, but there is no doubt about who wields the most power in Albany today.