We have spent a lot of time – and words – describing the classically dysfunctional legislature in Albany. Yesterday, the lid blew off the pot as two Senators, each with unresolved legal issues, switched control of the body from Democrats to Republicans.
As might be expected, the local tabloids used yesterday’s events as grist for today’s headlines. Our favorites were the Post’s cover story MUTINY AT THE MADHOUSE by Fred Dicker and Brendan Scott, and Newsday’s FROM COUP TO CUCKOO, written by Dan Janison.
Janison’s lede sets the stage for the drama upstate:
“For those learning of it downstate, this struck like lightning.
Word of the parliamentary coup’s early moments in the Senate chamber in Albany yesterday smacked or reports from a foreign n capital under siege, complete with descriptions of rooms going dark and TV feeds cut off and a mob scene in the hallway.”
Then, from Dicker and Scott:
“An unprecedented revolt sparked by two renegade Democrats yesterday ousted Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and returned Republicans to power in the state Senate, rocking the Capitol and dealing a sever blow to Gov. Paterson.
“Thirty Senate Republicans were joined by scandal scarred Democrats Pedro Espada Jr. of The Bronx and Hiram Monserrate of Queens to form a majority in the 62-member chamber. The action came on an unexpected motion by Republican Sen. Thomas Libous of Binghamton.
“Libous stunned the Senate chamber when he rose and announced a resolution naming Espada the new Senate president.
“The motion also restored Senate Minority leader Dean Skelos (R-LI) to the post of majority leader.
The historic maneuver left Senate Democrats, who in January took the majority for the first time since 1965, slack-jawed and powerless.”
On the opposite page, Dicker’s headline CLUELESS LEADERSHIP DIDN’T SEE IT COMING, says a lot. His lede:
“The historic and breathtaking coup that apparently ousted Senate Majority Leader Maclolm Smith yesterday was set in motion three weeks ago – but it was six months in the making.
"The foundation was laid in December when the ‘Gang of Four’ reengage Democrats repeatedly played political footsie with shell-shocked Republicans who had just narrowly lost their Senate majority for the first time in 43 years.
"The flirtation heated up in the following weeks – but not because of anything done by the Republicans and “Gang” members.
"The major factor was the ham-handed and embarrassingly chaotic leadership by the Queens-based Smith hand other leading Democrats, including Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Klein of The Bronx, that angered and alienated Senate Republicans.
Most importantly, it led key ‘Gang’ members Pedro Espada Jr. of The Bronx and Hiram Monserate of Queens to decide to jump ship, several insiders said last night.”
Dicker goes on to detail the various failings of the Democrat-run Senate, which greatly reduced the number of Republican leadership positions, staff allotments and member items (“pork”), polarizing the Senate and creating a near-crippling partisan impasse. By not tackling the state’s growing budget problems, Democrats also alienated at least one of their key advocates, former gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano, whose support first helped secure Democratic victory in the fall and then aided the GOP coup yesterday.
A Post editorial, MALCOLM’S JUST DESSERTS, also takes issue with ex-Majority Leader Malcolm Smith for his ineffectual leadership.
“Light a candle for Paterson, please.
“For New York, also.
“Not that Smith didn’t richly deserve the ouster.
“Joining forces with morally malleable folks like Monserrate, Espada and the two other so-called ‘Gang of Four’ Deomcratic senators – Carl Kruger and Ruben Diaz Sr. – was to invite disaster.
“Well, the coup was itself final proof – as if any was needed – that Smith couldn’t lead the Senate in any constructive direction.
Or in any direction, for that matter: New Yorkers can rejoice in his departure, if that turns out to be the case.”
Under the p4 Daily News headline 2 DEM FLIPS SET ALBANY ABLAZE, Bill Hammond writes:
“Coup plotters have always rationalized their devious plots as necessary to realize the will of the people.
“The Republican-led junta that seized control of the state Senate yesterday was no exception.
“‘This is a new beginning for New York State,’ propagandized on e of the Democratic turncoats that made the coup possible, Bronx Sen. Pedro Espada. “A new beginning of bipartisan government, a new beginning of real reform.”
“What a crock.
This was a GOP power grab, plain and simple.”
Hammond also points to the key Democratic players in the drama.
“Any talk about fixing Albany is the thinnest of cover stories.
“No secret conspiracy involving the likes of Espada and Queens Sen. Hiram Monserrate – two of the least reputable pols in Albany – can claim to be a reform movement.
“Monserrate is fighting a felony indictment charging him with slashing his girlfriend in the face with a broken glass.
“Espada has a long history of unethical and illegal behavior. Current violations include living outside his east Bronx district, in Mamaroneck, and refusing to disclose who financed his latest campaign.
Why Skelos would trust Espada and Monserrate is obvious: They were willing to join him. The only question is what goodies they extorted.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE STATE SENATE
This is far from the first conflict over which political party would organize the senate, select the committee chairs and staff members, dole out member items, redistrict the state to keep themselves in office, and take advantage in every conceivable way as their status as the majority, including the refusal to consider bills submitted by minority members.
The Republican Party had ruled the Senate since January 1966, a period of forty-three years and several lifetimes in politics.
Before that, the Democrats had been in power for just one year, 1965, and their leader, Joseph Zaretzki, had been elected by Republican senators, voting en bloc with a minority of Democratic senators. This unusual outcome came after a five-week impasse, with neither of the Democratic factions able to secure the necessary votes to elect a Senate majority leader or an Assembly speaker.
The stalemate was broken by an alliance formed by two powerful figures from different parties: Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, and New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner, a Democrat. The Governor and the Mayor, both of whom had remarkable paternal ancestors, united to oppose the Democratic county leaders in New York City, who had three years earlier, under the leadership of Carmine DeSapio, tried to dump Mayor Wagner. The candidate of the Democratic bosses, State Comptroller Arthur Levitt, Sr., lost the 1961 Democratic primary to Wagner. That was a turning point in the city’s political history and a major blow to the Democratic machine, which had exercised considerable power in the five counties since Mayor LaGuardia left office at the end of 1945.
Democratic control of the 1965 senate came only because of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. That ended a generation of Republican rule, which resumed in 1966. During the ‘70s and 80s, the Senate had respected moderate Republican leaders like Warren Anderson of Binghamton, leader from 1973 to 1988, and Ralph Marino of Oyster Bay, leader from 1989 to 1994.
In 1994, Marino was deemed insufficiently enthusiastic about freshman senator George Pataki, the Republican candidate for governor. In his two years in the senate, Pataki had taken conservative positions at odds with fellow Republicans, who at the time were a tad more liberal than they are today.
U.S. Senator Al D’Amato was the deus ex machine of the Pataki candidacy. Pataki and D’Amato both wanted Marino out, and the Republican conference, following their wishes, elected Senator Joseph Bruno of Saratoga as Majority Leader of the Senate in 1995. Bruno stayed for fourteen years, resigning both as leader and senator in the summer of 2008, while being pursued by Federal authorities who subsequently indicted him for fraud. The Republicans selected Dean Skelos of southern Nassau County to succeed Bruno, and Skelos became majority leader yesterday as two Democrats switched sides to support him.
Another bit of information: The year ending in 1 is the most important year to control either house of the legislature. That is because it is the year that follows the decennial United States census, on the basis of which district lines are supposed to be redrawn to maintain equality of population between districts, a requirement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court. How the lines are drawn is a matter of political artistry, with each party seeking to adopt lines most favorable to them.
That is why in the Assembly, where Democrats have consistently drawn the lines, there are 109 Democrats to 41 Republicans, a margin of about 2.6 to 1. In the Senate, where Republicans have drawn the lines since the 1930s, they controlled the body except for the Democratic sweeps of 1964 and 2008.
THE MERITS OF THE DISPUTE – THE INTEGRITY OF THE RIVALS
There is little in the way of merit that divides the contestants in this quarrel over spoils. In order to win the votes of the so-called four amigos, Malcolm Smith and the Democrats made a series of commitments, some of which they did not keep. Two of the amigos, who have legal problems of their own doing, conspired for two months to turn back control to the Republicans, who they believe are more likely to keep their word.
Certain Democrats do not keep their word, 1) because they do not remember what they have said; 2) because it has become inconvenient; 3) because their promises are illegal and therefore unenforceable; and 4) because they believe that anyone foolish enough to trust them deserves the lesson he will receive from having done so.
Some newspapers and naïve TV reporters have called the amigos ‘turncoats’. We don’t believe that is justified by the facts here – public officials rebelling because promises, probably illegal ones, were unkept. Of course, the pain might have gone over to the highest bidder even if every promise was kept to the letter. There is no moral high ground here.
We just don’t know enough to divide moral culpability among the conspirators. Simply because people slash the throats of women, claim false residences, misuse poverty funds and fail to file spending reports does not necessarily mean that they cannot in turn be mistreated by others. (Indeed, they might claim that the unfairness with which they were treated by others led to their actions, for which they are being pursued by other minions of justice.)
For city residents, there is important legislation which may be jeopardized by this coup. One example is continuing mayoral control of the school system, which with all its distortions, petty injustices, extensive advertising and self-serving propaganda, appears to be more effective at educating children than the anarchy which preceded it. There appears to be a consensus that mayoral control should be tweaked but not broken. Hopefully Mayor Bloomberg’s co-operation with Senate Republicans will help accomplish the public good of extending the period of unitary responsibility for the school system by an elected official answerable to the public.
Of course, in cases like this, one doesn’t know what will happen from day to day as activist judges occasionally stick their noses into quarrels which are none of their business. We would tend, however, to trust the Court of Appeals on this one, more than we trust them on the effort to unilaterally increase their own salaries. It is right and fair that judges should receive higher salaries; it is not right that they should confer these benefits on themselves. There are, of course, other benefits than salaries. How much is it worth to have everybody stand up when you enter a room, not to have to worry about clients and their wishes, and hearing all the lawyers that surround you act is if you are very wise.
Interestingly, it was the Queens County Democratic organization that dumped incumbent Senator John Sabini in 2008 in favor of Monserrate. At that time the decision was not unreasonable, since Monserrate was getting closer each year and could well have won anyway. The district is primarily Latino and there is a paucity of Latino elected officials, in part because of geography; their homes are spread around the city more than they are concentrated in particular districts, as is more often the case with African-Americans. Sabini was given a fine job as head of the State Racing and Wagering Commission. Nor did anyone at Queens County (we imagine) anticipate Monserrate’s violent response when the woman (not his wife) who was visiting his apartment had something in her purse which gave him occasion for him to express his displeasure by striking her with a broken glass. She has dutifully withdrawn her complaint, but there are photographs of her injuries, and statements she made at the time she was injured.
CAN ANYTHING BE DONE?
Our last article (#562, 6/5/09) raised this issue, but did not answer it. A woman wrote in to say that she was discouraged that we did not recommend any corrective action. One reason for that is that, if you want to change the system, you have to play by the rules that the incumbents have written to protect themselves. People with substantial wealth have the opportunity to challenge the system, using part of their money to buy the media recognition that defines importance in today’s culture. In past crises, and when government was corrupt, outsiders organized to combat Tammany Hall.
The formation of the City Club (1892), the Municipal Arts Society (1893), and Citizens Union (1897) were part of an age of civic participation. Today the City Club lies prostrate, its assets sequestered, its members leaderless. But the other two are alive and well. They do not, however, focus on corruption, nor do they savage incompetence. They are valuable for what they do, and deserve support.
When Commissioner Gordon (not Parks nor Davis) shines his searchlight into the night sky, who else in Gotham will come to the aid of the forces of justice?
#563 06.09.2009 2327 wds