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In the Middle

Malcolm Smith negotiates with himself.

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Malcolm Smith thinks of himself as a good negotiator. The State Senate minority leader stood to be the first Democratic majority leader in over four decades after his party won in November. But he may turn out to be the first to lose that post. Three rebel senators—Pedro Espada Jr., Carl Kruger, and Ruben Diaz Sr.—have been threatening to turn Republican if he doesn’t do their bidding, and his response has been summed up with a bit of jargon he’s often thrown out to reporters in explaining his approach to politics: ZOPA, or “zone of possible agreement.” It’s a catchphrase that Smith, a former real-estate developer from Queens, says he picked up at Harvard Law, where his official biography touts he “furthered his education with a certificate program on negotiations.”

But so far the ZOPA has looked more like capitulation. (And anyway, that Harvard program ran only a day and a half.) He sat down with the rogues and allegedly offered them a power-sharing agreement (and agreed to table gay marriage), only to catch flak for being too soft. “It’s possible to be too nice, and his personality fits that profile to a degree,” says his mentor the Reverend Floyd Flake, a former congressman. “In trying to placate them, he probably injured himself more than he helped himself. He now realizes they are not a group he can negotiate with. Otherwise he will lose the respect of the rest of the members.” Hank Sheinkopf, a top adviser, says Smith is too idealistic. “I believe politics is a brothel. Malcolm believes that politics is the Garden of Eden, and all you need to do is rearrange the trees.” Last week, Smith changed tactics and suspended all talks. It might be too late. “He’s playing a poor hand badly,” says one party operative. “If he ends up majority leader, it’s not going to be because of his skills as a negotiator. It’s going to because nobody else is stepping up.”

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