The idea of sharing power in politics is counterintuitive, or so learned New York State Senator Malcolm Smith, in a bizarre turn of events. The leader of New York’s upper house, an African American and the first Black to lead the chamber, was ousted in a coup when two renegade Democrats flipped and joined the Republican opposition to revert control of the chamber back to the GOP. It was a stunning power play with a billionaire, Thomas Golisano, in the shadows, orchestrating the maneuver. Golisano had supported the Democrats, who took control of the State Senate for the first time in four decades, but had grown increasingly irritated by the party’s position on taxes and reform measures. So much so that the wealthy businessman announced he was moving his primary residence to Florida.
Even by the insanity of Albany politics, June 9 will go down in the books as a seminal moment in the weird politics of the Empire State. The legislative meltdown on that day included the Democrats turning the lights off in the Senate chamber in an attempt to abort the Republicans attempt to bring to a vote a motion to remove the Democratic leader.
The reengage Democrats, Pedro Espada, Jr. of the Bronx and Hiram Monserrate of Queens, supported Smith after Democrats won the majority but only after gaining certain concessions. It was a bad deal at the time and only grew worse in the last several months. By switching their allegiance to the Republican leadership, both men upended what had been a historic transfer of power in the state capital in January. State Senator Malcolm Smith got the raw end of the deal, losing his leadership positions of Majority Leader and Senate President. Meanwhile Governor David A. Paterson, himself the former Senate Minority Leader, could only watch on the sidelines and according to published reports has no intention of intervening in the legislative turf war. Senate Democrats were caucusing on Tuesday to consider their options but there appears little that they can do legally to stop the Republicans. At least six Democrats failed to show up for a press conference held by Smith, a sign that his leadership of the Democratic caucus might be in jeopardy.
No matter the final resolution, the incident leaves another mark on Black leadership. At a time when the presence of the state’s first Black governor and first Black Senate Majority Leader should be the focus of great pride and expectation, Black leadership appears to be imploding. The governor, dealt a bad hand by the recession, has seen his stock tumble after taking office with strong public support after succeeding Eliot Spitzer, who left office as a result of a call girl scandal. Paterson quickly found himself battling gaffes that caused self-inflicted wounds, and watching the state’s fortunes plummet in the face of a historic recession. The Democrats victory in January, the success of Democrats in taking back the Senate, gave the party majority and full control of state government – Governor, State Assembly, State Senate and Attorney General. It also left them little room for error as constituent expectations ran high that long sought after progressive measures would become priorities. In short order, the mood among Democrats soured as they struggled to define a governance agenda.
Larger issues now loom over the State Senate. Republicans are getting damaged goods and there is some question as to how long the marriage between the defectors and GOP will last. Both dissidents have their own legal problems. A health care organization once run by Senator Espada is under investigation by the state Attorney General and he has been previously fined thousands of dollars for campaign finance violations. Monserrate was indicted on felony charges alleging he stabbed his companion with broken glass. Earlier in the year Republicans were calling on Monseratte to resign. Democrats must now take stock of their caucus, and try to stop any further losses. For the state’s Black and Latino communities, it remains to be seen whether Espada’s betrayal of Smith evokes any hard feelings among Black voters and increases tensions between the two key Democratic voting blocs. If so, it would be the worst of all possible consequences for Governor Paterson, who may have to fend off an intra-party challenge when he is up for election next year.