Gershman: If Dems Have an Ace, They’d Better Play It Fast

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Regardless of how the majority struggles shake out, Malcolm Smith's days as Democratic leader appear to be numbered. Photo: Getty Images

After one of the most shocking displays of Machiavellian politics in a statehouse awash with plots and conspiracy — when Democrats Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada helped Republicans take back control of the New York State Senate — it would not have been surprising if fistfights had broken out at the Italian Community Center near Albany, where Republican and Democratic lawmakers gathered last night for a fund-raiser. The eight-piece band, sensing trouble, tried to soothe tensions with Italian favorites like "O Sole Mio." "We didn't want to play anything that would egg them on," said the drummer. The Senate Democrats who showed up huddled and drank together, while Republicans dug into hot pizza and meatballs. The Democrats left early without incident.

Whatever happens next, it's clear that Senator Malcolm Smith's days as leader of his conference (whether majority or minority) are numbered. Even before the coup, his grip on power was tenuous. In budget negotiations, the battle over the MTA bailout and debate over same-sex-marriage legislation, Democrats were hopelessly fractured. Since Democrats took over the chamber last November, Smith sought in vain to impose discipline. In the end, he could never persuade his conference — which encompasses liberal Manhattanites, rural upstaters, and suburban moderates — to act as one.

Smith, who represents a moderate African-American community in southeast Queens, was able to seize power — but only by making promises he couldn't keep. At the heart of it was his inability to placate his liberal members and satisfy the demands of the non-ideological mercenaries, Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate. Republicans too have their internal divisions, but they tend to stick together, a quality hardened by their long experience as an embattled, aging majority in a blue-leaning state — and anger over the way they felt they've been treated by the ruling Democrats in recent months.

For Espada, the job of president of the Senate — which puts him second-in-line to the governorship — was too good to pass up. It didn't help that Espada was feeling heat from pro-tenant Democrats after Smith in January had given him assurances that he would avoid any move to tighten rent regulations. Espada, say Republicans, approached them about switching sides a month ago.

Over the last week, conspiring in apartments around Albany, Republicans plotted every step of the coup with an extreme meticulousness, a complex exercise in Albany game theory. "We ran through every scenario," says Republican Jim Alesi, who says they even predicted that Democrats would "act emotionally" by moving to adjourn and trying to literally shut down the session instead of staying in the chamber and putting up a fight. "By leaving, they gave us carte blanche." Democrats turned off lights and switched off the cameras. Republicans came prepared with their own photographers, recording equipment, and stenographers.

Governor David Paterson, whom some blame for the Democratic chaos, last night called the coup an "outrage." Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose control of Albany is now threatened, vowed to throw his support behind the Democrats. Albany is used to outrages; it processes them quickly and moves on. If Democrats have an ace, they had better play it quickly. The consensus is that if Democrats have any hope of crushing the insurrection, they have a very limited window of action, 48 hours at the most.

Espada suggested yesterday that they may flip as many as five other lawmakers, including Senators Ruben Diaz Sr. and Carl Kruger. Any additional switches would give Republicans much-needed insurance; the Democratic turncoats are not the most reliable conspirators. Espada is under a state ethics probe and Monserrate, accused of slashing his girlfriend in the face with a broken glass, was recently indicted on domestic-assault charges.

Unless Republicans join their camp — an unlikely scenario — Democrats' best shot lies outside the legislature in the court system. They may seek an injunction to block Republicans from gaveling back into order this week. Both Democrats and Republicans say they expect that separation-of-powers considerations will deter judges from intervening in a testy parliamentary matter that they may feel is best sorted out by lawmakers themselves.

Says one Senate Democrat: "We may have a trick up our sleeves. Just wait." Alesi says he's unfazed: "This is not a pregnancy test. We have 32 votes."

Earlier: GOP Takes Over State Senate