Tuesday, June 09, 2009

And they said the NYS Dems' record for shortest tenure as Senate majority party (under 11 months, 1965) was one that would never be broken


Billionaire, thrice-failed gubernatorial candidate, and recent self-proclaimed tax emigrant to Florida Tom "The Golem" Golisano, seen here in an unflattering, apparently stone likeness, is just one of the hilarious players in the summer-stock production of Putsch! currently being played in that hotbed of hilarity, the New York State Senate.

"Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight."
-- from the famous opening number of the classic Larry Gelbart-Stephen Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (the first show for which Sondheim provided music as well as lyrics)

by Ken

With our NYS Legislature, by contrast, it's comedy 24/7!

So, who could have foreseen, right? I mean, the way a "coalition" of New York State Senate Republicans and a couple of nominal Democrats -- people you would by and large do your darnedest to avoid allowing in your home -- wrested control of the Senate from the iron grip of Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, thus ending his and the Democrats' five-month tenure as Senate majority party. Or maybe they didn't. (The Dems say the Senate was adjourned before the vote that either did or didn't take place, depending on your viewpoint, and in the best of comedy stylings, the joint is now locked tight, with the keys in the Dems' possession of either the Senate secretary or the sergeant-at-arms, like as if it was the Our Gang clubhouse, while presumably all the players are running frantically to, and trying to break down the doors of, the judges of their choice.

Quite a shocker, eh? Well, maybe not so much.

Yesterday's putsch in Albany may have been "unexpected" in the sense that nobody except the conspirators led by briefly former and apparently soon-to-be once-again Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos knew it was going to happen yesterday. After all, as the breathless local news talking heads were pointing out in their pop-eyed accounts, most everyone expected that that the Senate was going to be accomplishing its current paper-shuffling standard yesterday, which is to say zilch, as the Legislature counts down the last two weeks of the current session.

Oh, it's not that there's nothing to be done. There's a nasty list of things that need to be done by recess (but probably won't be), and then an assortment of lists of things hoped by various parties to be done (expected to suffer a similar fate). But basically where approximately where we were six or seven months ago.

So, in short, pretty much the last thing any of us were expecting was news of any sort from our beloved, gridlocked Senate. But in reality this has been staring us in the face ever since the Dems won "control" (ha!) of the Senate in November, by a tenuous 32-30 margin that's a good deal wispier than it sounds, for the first time since the LBJ presidential landslide year of 1964.

Essentially we're back where we were in December. As you may recall, barely had the election smoke cleared -- with one Senate contest, for the Queens seat being defended by incumbent GOP Sen. Frank Padavan, still undecided -- than it became clear that the Senate Democrats, after all those decades as a permanent minority, didn't face a smooth transition into the majority.

Suddenly there was a Gang of Four or Maybe Three -- Democratic state senators, including one who had only just been elected -- threatening to refuse to vote with their fellow Democrats unless, unless . . . well, it's never been clear what they wanted. It was widely assumed that the key bone of contention, or a key, was opposition to same-sex marriage, and there's no question that this is a big issue to the socially extremely conservative Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx, who is an ardently anti-choice Democrat (and emphatically not to be confused with his progressive son, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.).

But the issue doesn't seem to resonate much with the others. Pedro Espada Jr. doesn't seem to have much history on the issue. He's more known for a history of dubious financial dealings that's outsize even by forgiving Bronx-pol standards. Espada in fact was actually negotiatintg a deal with Malcolm Smith, repudiated when it became public, that among other goodies would, astonishingly, have vaulted him to the position of Senate president pro tempore -- a dream that rechristened GOP Majority Leader in fact delivered on yesterday in a flurry of post-putsch activity. The word generally heard about Espada is that he has ties (financial, one would presume) to landlord interests, which are always in play when it comes time for the Legislature to consider renewal of rent regulation laws. There's no question that a Republican-controlled Senate is a happier playing filed for landlords.

And at least on paper the just-elected Hiram Monserrate of Queens, who quickly backed down from the uprising rumblings, reducing the Gang from Four to Three. is a textbook progressive. But then, Senator Monserrate has other, er, issues, centering around an incident with a girlfriend. He was, as Wikipedia puts it, "arrested on December 19, 2008 and accused of slashing Karla Giraldo in the face with a broken drinking glass during an argument in his Jackson Heights apartment." And in fact it wasn't that long ago that the Republicans were opposing seating their future "coalition" mate Monserrate at all. Complicating matters for the senator, in March a Queens grand jury indicted him on three counts of felony assault and three counts of misdemeanor assault. Word is that his conversion to coalitionism is going to win him some much-needed funding for his defense.

Finally there's my favorite of the bunch: Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, whose sole known governing principle appears to be: What's good for Carl Kruger is good for Carl Kruger. In 2007 Kruger became the first minority-party member in NYS Senate history to be appointed chairman of a committee, and even though Kruger does not appear to have participated in yesterday's coup, it's reported that Skelos has assured our Carl that he will retain his committee chairmanship under the new "coalition" command.

From the evident ethnicity of three of the four, it's not surprising that there was talk of Hispanic resentment at disrespect from the Democratic conference leadership. One wants to be sensitive here, but what possible respect could be shown to people like this? The only discernible thread that joins these Democratic "rebels" is an especially shameless concern for the traditional NYS Leg question "What's in it for me?" But there's a way of doing it that crosses the line into tacky, like when a bribe-giver hands out bare fistfuls of cash rather than taking the trouble to stuff the loot in an envelope that slides easily into the pocket. Now there's class.

Here it's well to remember those decades of permanent-minority status Democratic senators suffered. As I've written before, there was little enough for majority senators to do, since traditionally all their thinking was done for them by their majority leader. But at least they had all those perks of the majority to occupy their attention and help instill a modicum of, um, dignity. In New York's system, there is a raging disproportion between majority and minority loot, which is how the two major parties came to carve up the Legislature after that brief experience of Democratic Senate rule in 1965. The biggest, most intractable disagreement between the parties back then was reapportionment. With each party unwilling the forego the opportunity to pamper itself and screw the opposition, the two houses had still not been able to agree on a judicially acceptable redistricting plan.

With a view to future census-driven redistrictring, the legislative leaders finally hammered out the only compromise they could think of. Knowing that both houses' approval would always be needed for any future reapportionament plan -- that is, assuming that the courts would allow the Legislature to perform the task -- they ceded one house to each party, the often Democratic Assembly to the Dems and the normally Republican Senate to the GOP. I don't know that any formal document was ever drawn, but the brazen understanding was that the parties wouldn't contest each other's sitting members.

It's this agreement that then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer threw over, choosing as part of his battle plan an active challenge to the shrinking Republican Senate majority. Of course the governor wasn't around to take advantage of the result, but then, even before his "difficulties" there was plenty of evidence that his "steamroller" approach wasn't exactly winning friends or influencing people of either party in the Legislature, and I'm not at all sure that he would have succeeded any better than his successor, Govenor Paterson, has managed to do in nurturing the new Senate majority.

Because, especially where there is no history of conference leadership or loyalty, what can you do about people like Espada and Monserrate and Kruger and Diaz? And this is where one wonders where the Senate Democrats, who declared yesterday that they're "going to the mattresses" over the Republican seizure of control of the Senate, really plan to go? Presumably they can keep the Senate shut down for a day, maybe two. But at some point, and I'm guessing some point soon, isn't control of the chamber going to depend on who's got the votes? One hears rumbling of "strategies" being applied to Espada and Monserrate, but really, what can they do? (The more immediate question for Monserrate would appear to be how long an accused felon can string out his tenure. All the way to verdict?)

Meanwhile the Republican-"led" leadership "coalition" is doing a lot of talking about ending the Senate's five-month-long gridlock and even instituting much-need reforms. It sounds crazy, but then, who knows? Maybe the state party, making what appears to be something close to a "last stand," is so bereft of ideas that it's prepared to gamble everything on the most desperate of gambits: good government.

Presumably Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate and maybe even Carl Kruger will vote for that.


I see that I've left out of my narrative the role of one of the shadier sideshow attractions in recent New York State history, Tom "The Golem" Golisano. Even back in the early days of the Gang of Four or Maybe Three, it now appears that the anti-leadership machinations were being facilitated if not actually orchestrated by one of the more repellent sideshow attractions in recent state political history. Golisano, a payroll-processing billionaire, has made three failed races for governor, though each time drawing the minimum 50,000 votes to put his so-called Independence Party on state ballots for a while. Like other extremely wealthy folk with too much time on their hands, Tom the Golem seems to have decided that he knows how to make government work.

Apparently Tom's fingerprints are all over yesterday's Senate coup. Which makes one think that he may not have been not entirely serious in his not-long-ago renunciation of the Empire State in favor of Florida (where he already had a residence), a loudly self-declared fugitive from tax policies he announced would cost him, as I recall, an additional $5 million. By creepy coincidence, Gov. David Paterson has loudly opposed even modest tax increases on the rich as a way of closing the state's terrifying budget gap, on the ground that this would cause an outward flight of the rich. Putting the two together, one wonders if the rich person the governor had in mind was Tom the Golem.


As all of this weren't hilarious enough, to top it all off, as my colleague Debra Cooper has been pointing out since before the election, this didn't have to be. Debra and some lonely-voiced colleagues in the NYS Democratic Party could be heard -- faintly -- screaming that there were several Senate races, including the oh-so-close Padavan seat in Queens, where Democratic pickups were within relatively easy reach. Just the tiniest expenditure of party campaign money and manpower could well have brought those seats home. However, virtually all state party campaign resources were being diverted, by order of the Obama campaign, to the presidential contest in Pennsylvania and other states -- manning phone banks and such.

Yes, the presidential race was important, and NYS Dems were eager and willing to pitch in wherever asked. But it wasn't the only game in town, the only job the state party had to do. For Democrats who believe in the things that New York State Democrats do, there has been a high price to pay for the diversion of all those local campaign resources. Thanks, Team Obama!

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