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Pedro Espada's New Clout

by David King, Jun 01, 2009
 
Espada at a Senate Housing Committee meeting
Pedro Espada with his wife, Connie

It's a little after 8 a.m. on a Thursday morning and State Sen. Pedro Espada, Jr. is sitting down at the kitchen table in his Bedford Park apartment to enjoy a bowl of cereal. A wide-screen TV sits at the center of the living room, rows of family pictures hang on the walls. A child's bedroom is stocked with toys. A Dora the Explorer doll sits on the bed. Espada says it's for when the grandchildren come to visit.

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"I hope you don't mind guys, this is what I do. This is reality TV," Espada says as he pours some lactose-free milk on top of his corn flakes and strawberries. If things feel awkward this morning it is because Espada has invited a reporter into his Bronx home.

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Whether or not Espada actually spends most of his mornings in this well-kept apartment is currently under investigation by the Bronx district attorney. Reporters have recently staked out his other residence in Mamaroneck, Westchester County. In recent weeks Espada has spent more time scuttling away from reporters or laughing in their faces than talking to them. This morning Espada seems to be trying a different tact. He repeatedly mentions that representatives of the Working Families Party have told him that, because of the way he is portrayed on television, they were shocked to find out how bright he is.

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Tenants protest outside the the Water Club during a May 7 meeting between Pedro Espada and area landlords.

Espada gets an unusual amount of attention for a newly elected senator from the Bronx, because he has managed to define the direction of major policy issues in the Senate. His hard bargaining with the gang of three dissident Democrats earlier this year helped define the Senate leadership structure. Espada was nearly named Senate majority leader but eventually had to settle for other powerful positions, generally unheard of for a senator with so little seniority: vice president pro tempore for urban policy, vice president of the Senate Rules Committee and chairman of the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development.

In addition to wrangling for influential leadership positions, Espada and the two other so-called amigos stonewalled against bridge tolls during the negotiations over a bailout of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, delaying action and helping to weaken the plan. As the chair of the Senate committee on housing, he has slowed action on legislation that tenants have been demanding for years.

Espada's critics say he has been using his power to work directly against the interests of the people he represents. He says the "white-owned" mainstream media has been intolerant of him and the new Democratic majority and that liberal groups don't understand his measured, thoughtful approach.

Later, as he strolls through the empty lobby of the Bronx apartment building, Espada explains that no one is around to see him leave at 8 a.m. or return home at 10 at night. "If I happen to be in Mamaroneck you'll find me in Mamaroneck. On a day like today you'll find me, you know, in the Bronx," he says. On one hand, Espada said, his Mamaroneck home represents a "kind of life my wife wanted to experience," but on the other, he said, "it has never been my life." Yet he is extremely defiant. "The controversy comes in when reporters come out and stake themselves out at 6 a.m. in front of my house," he said.

Espada doesn't stop there. "This is not some basement without a phone. This is where we wanted to be. If you visit other legislators or visit judges, mayors or deputy mayors, many have second homes. The difference is many of them live 100 to 200 miles away in an adjoining state like Connecticut or New Jersey. Mine is 20 minutes away."

Espada laments the underappreciated life of a public servant. He says it gets to him when "issues of salary" come up because public officials do the kind of things he has planned to do today, "all the time."

Today Espada will be chauffeured in a light blue Chrysler 300, stopping first to host a breakfast to help minority- and women-owned businesses tap into funds from the federal stimulus package. Later in the afternoon he'll attend a hearing at Bronx Community College on mayoral control of public schools. Espada leaves the hearing early. He then travels to the Soundview Health Center, part of his Soundview Healthcare Network, where he is the chief executive officer, president and founder, for a couple of quick meetings. After that he heads to a Yankees game.

A Perennial "Troublemaker"

Espada is used to controversy. Later in the day at his office in the Soundview Health Clinic, Espada pauses to search for a book of subpoenas he has received over the years. He doesn't find it. But he treats it like a badge of honor. During a previous stint in the Senate representing another Bronx district, Espada switched allegiances and decided to caucus with the Republican Party. The grateful GOP rewarded him with member items, some of which he directed to his own Soundview Health Clinic.

Since then, he has been repeatedly investigated for directing funds intended for his health clinics to his political campaigns.

In 2005, three employees of his health clinics pleaded guilty to directing funds from the clinics to his campaigns, but Espada himself was never charged.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is currently examining Espada's use of clinic money to pay his employees' legal bills. Espada said that was a legitimate use of the funds. "I have a fiduciary responsibility to defend this organization," he said. Espada arranges for me to sit in on a meeting of his clinic staff. He begins by jokingly warning the staff not to bring up "anything that might get us in legal trouble."

The senator has come under scrutiny for not properly filing contributions for his 2008 election campaign. He and his campaign committees owe the state $13,000 for 27 outstanding judgments for not filing proper campaign records. And he still owes the New York City Campaign Finance Board $60,000 in fines from his 2001 bid for Bronx borough president.

Tenant Complaints

Tenant advocates were horrified when Espada was named head of the housing committee. During his previous stint in the Senate and before he became a Republican, Espada had served as the ranking Democrat on the housing committee. Advocates say he did nothing for their cause. When Democrats won the Senate in November, tenant groups expected Sen. Liz Krueger, who is seen as very knowledgeable on the issues and tenant-friendly, would get the committee chair. To their dismay, that did not happen.

Earlier this year the Assembly passed a package of bills designed to address tenants' issues. The legislation was meant to stop landlord harassment, improve conditions in rent-controlled apartments, make it harder for landlords to take apartments off rent control and re-regulate some apartments that had been removed from rent control. Housing advocates have been nervously waiting ever since to see if Espada would allow the bills out of his committee.

"Espada is working directly against us, trying to bottle up bills and let the clock run out," said Michael McKee of the Tenants PAC.

Certainly one could expect Espada to support pro-tenant legislation. "Espada has the second largest amount of constituents living in rent-regulated apartments of any legislator; only Eric Schneiderman has more," says McKee. "Seventy-two thousand households in Pedro's district are rent regulated."

McKee and his colleagues turned the heat up on Espada this month with protests and lobbying. Then on May 12, during a lobby day, Espada surprised tenants by attending their rally and giving a supportive speech. He issued a press release saying he supported tenants' issues.

McKee didn't buy it. "It was all PR baloney," he said.

McKee cites a subsequent account in Crain's that Espada told a reporter he planned to refer the measures to the rules committee, where Sen. Carl Kruger, a fellow amigo, would block their passage.

Advocates say that Kruger has reason to want to stop rent decontrol. He received over $27,000 from landlord interests last year.

Crain's quoted Espada as saying, "I don't see enough time to give all these bills attention. ... I must have 20-something housing bills to address."

But Espada denies the report and said, "There is not one quote in Crain's!" He now says he plans to have that vacancy decontrol bill out of committee, probably sometime in the beginning of June.

Let's Talk About It!

Tenant advocates, Espada said, would prefer he rush legislation through without debate. "Those bills passed by the Assembly were on automatic pilot for many years and had made no adjustment to the reality we lived through, the unprecedented economic crisis," the Bronx legislator argues.

Espada said that it was his duty to discuss and review the issues in committee.

"People in the Bronx are abused by their landlords every day. The conditions of their buildings are deteriorating. Why hesitate a minute if you want to stand up for them?" asked Gary Axelbank, a resident of Espada's district and a veteran Bronx reporter and commentator who thinks Espada's motives remain "unclear."

Under the current law, landlords can take apartments off rent regulation if rent reaches $2,000 per month and the tenant makes over $175,000 a year, or if a landlord performs renovations to a vacant apartment that push the rent over $2,000. Advocates say the second measure gives landlords an excuse to harass tenants to drive them out of their apartments. The new law would end decontrol and put a number of apartments back under rent stabilization.

Espada said the changes would hurt the very people who provide housing to poor and working-class New Yorkers. "There are people who believe developers, managers of housing, the people responsible for most affordable housing, should be totally ignored and their investments totally discarded. I could easily pander to those interests and be their so-called champion but haven't gotten this far in my professional life or my personal life by having the easy way out," he said.

McKee said that he has received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith that the bill will come out of committee in June. When asked about that, Espada said he had heard from landlords and developers that Smith plans to block the bills. Austin Shafran, Smith's spokesperson, declined to comment on either assertion saying only that tenant issues are a "priority" for Smith.

McKee acknowledged that right now his concern is getting enough support to actually get the decontrol bill passed. A number of Democrats have still not publicly endorsed the bill. Espada agreed the bill now seems unlikely to have enough support to pass.

The Money Trail

Smith received more than $236,000 in donations from landlord interests since 2007, according to the Daily News. Although the landlords generously supported Republicans for decades, Democrats in general also receive large amounts of campaign cash from the landlord lobby each year. Democrats have received over $1 million in contributions from the landlord lobby since 2007, the News reported.

McKee thinks Espada is among them. "Pedro is for sale. He is selling himself to the real estate lobby pure and simple; believe me, we see it." McKee points to Espada's missing campaign filings. "I still don't know where he got his money to win the primary," says McKee.

No one does because Espada still has not filed the required documents that would show how he financed his 2008 campaign. Last month, Smith set a deadline for Espada to get his campaign finance situation in order. If he didn't he could lose his leadership posts -- including the housing committee chair.

Several days later, Espada made gestures to address his campaign finance debacle, although the records of donations to his 2008 campaign are still not available. Nevertheless Smith said he was satisfied with Espada's efforts, and Espada kept his committee chairmanship.

Espada claimed he has not made the filings because he has not received enough guidance on how to submit the information to the Board of Elections. Board officials said they are not in the habit of practicing "gotcha" and have offered their assistance on multiple occasions but they can't move forward until Espada's campaign provides them with the information that needs to be filed. A meeting is planned between Espada's representatives and the Board of Election on June 2.

Keeping Them Guessing

Axelbank recalled that his first interaction with Espada was over tenant issues. "Tenants in Parkchester were complaining about the conditions of their building, and he stepped in and forced action. I thought, here is a guy ready to stand up and be counted." But Axelbank said his opinion of Espada has drastically changed since those days. "As time went on, I can't really track what he is really about."

Espada came up in Bronx politics as an outsider. He did battle with the established Bronx politicos and, in his latest run, defeated the party's candidate, the then incumbent Efrain Gonzalez.

While under investigation by the Bronx district attorney in 1998 and under pressure from the borough's political establishment to resign, Espada decided to tape conversations with Bronx party heads. The Village Voice printed transcripts of the tapes. In one of the taped conversations with the then Bronx Democratic county leader, Roberto Ramirez, Espada asked, "Is it still important that I retire from politics?" Ramirez responded, "That would help alleviate some tensions." Ramirez then implied that, that if Espada left politics, the investigation by the Bronx District Attorney would go away. Espada did drop out of politics -- temporarily -- but the investigation did not disappear.

Axelbank remembers another interaction with Espada, in the mid 1990s. Axelbank hosted a televised debate between Espada and David Rosado when a member of Espada's entourage walked across the stage carrying a hatchet in his hand. "He hands Espada the hatchet, and Espada says, 'Don't worry, viewers, this is just a plastic hatchet to show you this guy is a hatchet man for the Democratic Party.'"

Axelbank said Espada's unpredictability works to his advantage. "He likes to keep his options open and it makes it hard to tell what his motives really are.

When Espada won the Senate seat last year Democrats, who could only command a very slim majority, had no doubt that Espada would consider walking across to the other side if he could get a better deal there. Negotiations to get Espada, Kruger and Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. to support Smith for majority leader dragged on for months. Things were finally settled only when the three amigos all wound up with posts on powerful committees. So not only can Espada and his associates bottle up legislation by revoking their support (since the Democratic majority is so slim), they also can manipulate and bottle up legislation in the committees they oversee.

Axelbank says Espada's power reflects what is wrong with Albany. "The leadership in Albany is so poor that this guy is able to blackmail them to get into such a leadership post. The leadership in Albany is just pathetic."

Where He Stands

Espada has been characterized as in lockstep with Kruger and Diaz, lately he has made it a point to stress his disagreements with the group. He says he generally supports mayoral control of the schools, while Kruger does not. He supports gay marriage, while Diaz has been the chief leader in the Senate against it. But on both issues he stands with his amigos in criticizing the approach of Democratic leadership to try to force action on controversial matters.

He calls the push to vote on mayoral control this year "an artificial deadline." "Why must we have a gun to our heads?" Espada asked. Even though the law will sunset at the end of June, Espada insisted, that "date is not real. We have more time. The negotiation strategy is to dictate a timetable and therefore dictate outcomes."

Espada said he has found that Smith and Gov. David Paterson have tended to "circle the wagons" around Democratic members in an effort to create consensus out of political expediency. He says Smith and Paterson throw members who have objections to legislation under the bus to try to turn public opinion against them before they seriously discuss the matter. "It's a message were receiving back. We are gonna do it despite the obvious objections of many and we're gonna do it because the governor needs it or Bloomberg needs it or Senator Smith needs it to appear decisive and in control."

But Espada says that whether it be the "African American caucus" that he said stands firmly against mayoral control or the three amigos and their stance on tolls, the new reality of the Senate is that there will be more debate.

Meeting with Alec Diacou, a representative of Yes the Bronx, Espada pointed to a black and white picture that hangs on the wall. In the photo, a much younger Espada stands with a number of other young men on a rooftop. "You gotta start at home," said Espada. "It's like I've never been able to escape that symbol of urban decay and everything associated with it," he said. "You know what's sad. ... Most of those cats are dead. Most of my friends are dead, and so, yah, it's a blessing to be in this position."

But that position comes with hazards, at least in Espada's view. He sees the investigations by the Bronx district attorney and the attorney general as politically motivated attacks on his character. "I don't particularly like investigations," he said, "but I think what I would ask for is what Secretary of Labor [Raymond] Donovan asked for when he was found not guilty in the Bronx, and that was, after I'm cleared where do I go to reclaim my good reputation and name?"

Answering his own question, Espada said he wants Cuomo to issue a letter clearing him when his investigation is through. He would have liked former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to do the same. "After five years of investigating me in his own tenacious way he should have said, to remove the taint that he himself had helped develop over me, he should have said he investigated Soundview and regrettably several people did bad things but Sen. Espada is absolutely not guilty of any wrongdoing. If I had been, I would have been charged. I'm sure personally he regrets that because what goes around really does come back around."

Espada told Diacou about meetings he has had with powerful state players who he said will "remain nameless." Those conversations, he said "would frustrate me greatly because folks were asking for very little,' but even then he said his fellow Bronx politicians had the attitude, "'Are you crazy? They are not gonna give us that.'" The "political culture here has been settling into the notion that less is OK and that more than less would ruffle too many feathers," Espada said.

Espada said he wants to change that. Even though Bronx voters can be a serious factor in statewide elections, he said, the stigma attached to his borough has kept it from expecting much from politicians. Because were at the bottom now, he said, "We need to take a quantum leap forward, and we can't do that in incremental steps." It's clear Espada has taken that quantum leap forward in power, but the question is, will his constituents benefit?


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