Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Empire State of Chaos

llinois, you had all your "fun" last fall. It was bad at the time, but then, like a rotten tooth, your corrupt governor was impeached, removed from office and subsequently indicted. The worst you have to worry about now is watching the state's former first lady appear on a cheesy summer reality show.

Speaking of which, there are probably quite a residents of what is nick-named "the Empire State" wishing they could be on a reality series called, "I'm A New Yorker, Get Me Out of Here!!!"

After having lost one governor to sex scandal, having him succeeded by another who has become a national joke on "Saturday Night Live" as he incompetently runs the state -- hiking both taxes and spending -- New Yorkers today had to deal with a parliamentary overthrow which flipped the state Senate, nominally, back into the hands of the Republican Party. While this was a big surprise; it wasn't a total shock. It didn't occur in a vacuum.

The Democrats had taken control of the Senate after the 2008 elections -- by a slender 32-30 margin -- for the first time in 40 years. But even that had not occurred without controversy. Four Democrats -- Pedro Espada and Ruben Diaz of the Bronx, Hiram Monserrate of Queens and Carl Kruger of Brooklyn -- all withheld immediate support from the man who was to majority leader, Malcolm Smith of Queens.

The group -- nicknamed the "Gang of Four" -- tried holding out for various committee chairmanships and other leadership positions. Diaz, a fiercely socially conservative Democrat, insisted that he wouldn't support Smith unless he got a commitment that the chamber wouldn't bring up same-sex marriage. Eventually, Monserrate dropped out of the dissident group and pledged allegiance to Smith. The remaining three -- when they couldn't cut a deal with the Republicans and facing increasing pressure from their fellow Democrats -- eventually relented and also voted for Smith. That was back in December.

Keep these characters in mind.

Since that time, Gov. David Paterson has been suffering historically low poll numbers and has had to face rampant speculation that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo will be the Democratic nominee in his place in 2010. His herky-jerky leadership of the budget process (that included ridiculously high spending hikes, even in the middle of a recession) helped him not at all. (Prior to that his chaotic selection of Kirsten Gillibrand to replace Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate (and parallel trashing of Caroline Kennedy) process endeared him to neither the public or the press.

Last week, New York Post columnist Fred Dicker reported that a virtual "civil war" was brewing within the Democratic Party over next year's governor's race:

The battle lines are pitting Paterson, Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, a Paterson appointee, and several party functionaries against Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic leaders of the Legislature, and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, who had a serious and unexpected public clash with the governor on Friday.
Cuomo, the highly popular son of former governor Mario Cuomo, is gearing up to run for governor next year and is seen by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and other senior legislative Democrats as their party's strongest standard-bearer.

As if to confirm that volatility, the senior member of the New York delegation -- Rep. Charlie Rangel -- declared last Friday that a Cuomo challenge to the sitting black governor would split the party on racial lines. The statement was seen as a clear shot across the bow of Cuomo -- who lost an embarrassing gubernatorial primary fight several years ago to then-Comptroller Carl McCall, another African-American.

It seems that wasn't the "civil war" that people should have been looking at -- at least not right now.

Instead, two members of the previously mentioned "Gang of Four" -- Espada and Monserrate -- apparently worked behind the scenes over the last several weeks and restarted their conspiracy with the GOP minority. Both men will remain Democrats but include themselves in a "bipartisan majority" that ousts former Majority Leader Smith. The top Republican in the state Senate, Dean Skelos, will take that title, while Espada is now Senate President Pro Tem (in recent times in New York, both positions have been held by one individual).

Perhaps most appalling is that this situation could, conceivably, abruptly change because of the legal and ethical woes of both Monserrate and Espada.. Monserrate was arrested for slashing his girlfriend's face in a pre-New Year's domestic altercation. The girlfriend declared that it was a mistake and that Monserrate "tripped" with a glass in his hand. There is, reportedly, a hallway camera that tells a rather different story. The trial is pending. Espada has also been fined thousands of dollars over campaign irregularities going back years.

As a result, look for the Republicans to work on getting both the aforementioned Kruger and Diaz (and perhaps one or two others) to also caucus with them -- to give a measure of insurance in case either Monserrate, Espada or both possibly lose their seats to legal issues. If that is the case, New York can forget about getting same-sex marriage this session. At the very least, Diaz wouldn't switch without a guarantee that the legislation won't be brought up by the Republican pseudo-majority.

What will be the result of this insanity? Who knows? In 1994, a savvy politician had to deal with the loss of the legislative majority in both chambers. President Bill Clinton eventually used that to his advantage and managed to turn split government into a successful bid for re-election. Gov. Paterson has yet to demonstrate that he has that level of skills to try to triangulate between an Assembly still strongly in Democratic hands and a Senate controlled by Republicans. The governor has been strongly pushing what he calls the "marriage-equality" bill as a major priority that he thought could help repair his image with part of the Democratic Party base. Again, that is likely to become the most notable victim of the shake-up.

Alas, for New Yorkers, they can be forgiven that they are trapped in a nightmarish "reality" series from which they can neither escape nor awaken.

UPDATE: Some more background on the Albany overthrow -- with some historical perspective. And a clinical "anataomy of a coup."

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