Albany Out of Order
June 9th, 2009
“Voters, not donors!” chanted a swarm of activists who gathered at the fourth-floor capitol office of Sen. Pedro Espada, Jr. The sound echoed throughout the grand capitol staircase as activists grew louder and more agitated.
The man who helped orchestrate Espada’s and Sen. Hiram Monserrate’s defection from the Democratic majority, Tom Golisano, had just exited Espada’s office. The group said the “coup d’etat” orchestrated by Golisano has resulted in the delay of progressive legislation that voters wanted, legislation affecting affordable housing, clean elections, gay marriage, and reproductive rights, all issues that were pending before the legislature.
Just five months ago the same activists were celebrating the Democratic takeover of the Senate knowing that they had played an instrumental role in putting the Senate in Democratic hands. But today they were back to being the rowdy outsiders.
They don’t buy the pitch that the architects of the new majority want to work in a bipartisan fashion and were spurred on by concerns about ethics and rules reform.
Citizen Action’s Bob Cohen said the idea that the new bi-partisan coalition between the two rogue Dems and the Republican conference was “based on reform” is absurd. “I’ll say he has never been regarded as a reformer,” said Cohen of Espada, before quickly noting, “In fact, he has the reputation of the opposite of a reformer. But more importantly, what they are doing isn’t reform.”
Later the group took their anger to Monserrate’s office where Monseratte met with them. “He met with us and in vague terms told us he supported our issues,” said Cohen, noting he found Monserrate’s assertion hard to swallow. “We told him his role in this coup d’etat was unconscionable to us.”
Gay marriage activists, however, were a bit encouraged, as Espada said earlier in the day on Talk 1300 AM that he would like to have a vote on gay marriage. Republican Sen. Dean Skelos, who was elected as majority leader for a second time in his career yesterday, said he would bring the bill to a vote if there was interest among his members.
That information came as anti-gay marriage forces celebrated the Republicans’ coup. Opponents of gay marriage spent the day lobbying Senators, touring the building and making sure their signs were held up behind politicians as they were interviewed by the many television reporters who have descended on the capitol.
When not in meetings deciding how to dole out committee posts, Senate Republicans took the time to regale reporters with the story of how they pulled off their coup. What legislation they might actually work towards now that they are seemingly in control was more elusive.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats still seemed less outraged than shocked and unsure of the next move.
Just outside the Senate chamber Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr., told a group of reporters that he could not follow his fellow amigos to the new majority because he stands against Golisano. He said he could call Golisano an “opportunist.” He said he was still with the Democrats but was hesitant to say he supports Sen. Malcolm Smith. I asked Diaz what the “coup” might mean to his constituents. He said it was “too early to tell,” and threw his hands in the air. But he noted that he is against mayoral control of the New York City schools and said that “the new situation might hurt that. They might just extend it.”
A few moments later he met with students from Elizabeth Barret Browning Middle School 399 in the Bronx. The school is slated to be closed, and students and school officials had come to Albany to ask legislators to help alter mayoral control to allow more community input. Vincent Wojsnis, a teacher at the school and a United Federation of Teachers chapter leader, said they were encouraged that Espada, whose district the school is in now, has so much influence in Albany. He said he hoped legislators will weigh in to try to save the school. At the same time he said he shared Diaz’s fear that Republicans will back keeping mayoral control intact.
Sen. Liz Krueger, who had just finished huddling with fellow Democratic senators, was extremely even-keeled compared to some of her more devastated colleagues. Krueger said of concerns about the situation in Albany delaying the city budget, “This is not new or a news story. Everything is always delayed in Albany longer than its supposed to be, and it will always play out at the last minute.”
She went on to note that the state budget had been passed late for many years, meaning the city budget had to wait as well. “It’s not like they were up here early with it,” she said.
Krueger was frank when asked about reports that Espada’s defection may have been triggered because Smith denied his member item requests for $2 million dollars to Bronx groups that he has ties to. “He does have a history of having done that before, and he was irritated,” she said pausing. “I won’t speak for him, but my understanding is that he was irritated by the Democrats not allowing him to do this .” She said she supported the decision not to give Espada the member items, “if that is in fact what happened.”
Krueger said that the “whole story” behind the deal and the motives behind it has yet to be told. “Do I have a crystal ball? ” she asked. “No. Do I know that this is not about reform and ethics? Yes.”
New York Public Interst Research Group’s Blair Horner walked the halls chatting with reporters. He was still in awe of what took place yesterday. But he said when it comes to reform, “legislation talks.” He said the Senate Democrats had a number of pieces of legislation that would have dealt with ethics and rules reform. As for the rules reform passed by Republicans on Monday, Horner was still reviewing it. Later he told Jimmy Vielkind of The Observer that the new rules ensure 48 hour notice of resolutions, therefore making it impossible for a similar kind of “coup” to take place in the future
Activists including Horner say that takeover could backfire on Republicans if the legislative gears grind to a halt for took long. Right now Republicans have scheduled session to start tomorrow at 3 p.m. but the Senate chamber is still locked and the Democrats have the key. Republicans insist they can hold session anywhere. Espada suggested tomorrow’s session could happen in the park.By David King on June 9, 2009, 6:55 pm
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