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Pedro Espada’s Self-Coronation

The making of an Albany nihilist.

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Pedro Espada Jr. shoots his arms straight into the air, forming the international sign of victory. A huge grin lights the state senator’s face.

It seems a strange time for celebration. Already today in Albany, the state government has plunged even deeper into farcical chaos: Senate Democrats, who’d been boycotting the legislative proceedings for two weeks, suddenly sneaked into the ornate chamber two hours ahead of schedule and locked the doors behind them in order to seize the rostrum before the Republicans arrived—a sort of suit-and-tie version of capture the flag. When the Republicans entered, things rapidly deteriorated: the banging of dueling gavels, shouts of “You’re out of order!” “No, you’re out of order!” The only thing missing from this low comedy was Governor William J. Le Petomane and his buxom secretary.

Espada, a Democrat from the Bronx, had helped set this crazy chain of events into motion on June 8 by defecting to vote the Republicans into control of the State Senate—with Espada installed as Senate president, a heartbeat away from becoming governor. One week later, Senator Hiram Monserrate undefected back to the Democrats, effectively creating a tie between the parties. Fulmination and stasis have ruled ever since.

Now, after the abortive quasi-legislative session, Espada charges up a huge, gloomy set of marble and brownstone stairs and into his fourth-floor office, yelling, “Get Dean up here! Get the governor on the phone!” Dean is Dean Skelos, a silver-haired, taciturn Long Island senator and leader of the Republicans, who lured Espada into this alliance and now is watching, befuddled, as his new best friend hijacks the show. Skelos soon troops into Espada’s office, smiling tightly; Governor David Paterson is patched through on speakerphone. More shouting. Then Espada’s group stomps down the stairs to Paterson’s office, trailed by camera crews and serenaded by a pack of guitar-strumming marijuana-legalization advocates. “That’s a cash crop in your district,” cracks Stanley Schlein, a high-powered real-estate-industry lawyer and lobbyist who once knocked Espada off the ballot while working for the Bronx Democratic Party but who has recently become one of Espada’s top advisers.

After ten minutes inside Paterson’s office, Espada & Co. emerge to declare that the governor is furious with the tactics of Paterson’s fellow Democrats—and that the governor is now solidly behind Espada’s call for “binding arbitration” to settle the Senate dispute. Then it’s back upstairs to wait for Paterson’s upcoming press conference.

Espada takes a detour, breaking off to chat in one of the building’s gothic empty hallways. “We’ll have to see what the governor says in the press conference,” Espada says. “I’m not used to the truth coming from Paterson about what he’s told us.”

He’s also skeptical about the spine of his new allies. “My Republican friends were in power for 40 years,” Espada says. “They don’t know how to do this, to engage in a street fight, to deal with this on the ground.”

Espada knows how. He’s been scrapping since he was 16 and homeless. Now, at the age of 55, he is a sturdy five foot six and a meticulous dresser, dandily matching his pocket square with his tie. Espada has a broad, strikingly unlined face, large flat ears that are pressed tight to his head, and a swirling, coal-black comb-over. Returning to his office, he settles into a chair in the center of the room, surrounded by his wife; his son Pedro G. Espada, a former state assemblyman; a grandson who is smashing two dinosaurs together; a funereal uncle; Schlein; Steven Pigeon, the political aide to billionaire Tom Golisano, who helped engineer the leadership coup; and the remains of a large sausage pizza. Espada stares at the flat-screen TV, waiting for Paterson to appear. His secretary bursts in and hands Espada an advance copy of a proclamation Paterson will soon issue; it calls the Senate back into special session tomorrow and lists the bills the governor wants considered.

This is when Espada exults, raising his white-on-white French cuffs with the blue pe monogram toward the ceiling. “Look at this!” he shouts, reading the document. “Same-sex marriage—as suggested by Espada! No vacancy decontrol! All Pedro!”

“Get Díaz on the phone,” Schlein murmurs. “Send him the proclamation, and send him his statement from yesterday, that’s he ready to bolt if Paterson puts same-sex marriage on the list, and circle it!”

“Write him a note that says, ‘Call Pedro!’ ” Espada says.

Espada has claimed to be in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage—but that’s not why he nudged Paterson to include it on tomorrow’s agenda or why he’s happy now. A vote on the controversial bill could easily catapult the Reverend Rubén Díaz Sr., a Democratic senator and a virulent opponent of same-sex marriage, into an alliance with the Republicans, breaking the stalemate and putting Espada definitively in charge. If ever the fight was even marginally about issues, it’s now purely about winning the political game.


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