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Pedro Espada’s Self-Coronation

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Pedro Espada in the Senate chamber in Albany. "My office," he says.  

“Díaz should be voting with us now!” Pigeon says.

There’s a stirring on the TV; Paterson seems to be on his way to the microphone.

“This is gonna be a lot of bullshit,” Espada says. “Should I go down there, stand in the back of the room, to keep him honest? We’ve got to call a press conference with Skelos right after … You know what would be good? To have Bloomberg come out for arbitration. But I don’t trust him.”

Pigeon has another idea. “Maybe we should say, ‘We refer you to Senator Díaz’s earlier statement: “The governor is an idiot.” ’ ”

Paterson delivers a statement, excoriating the Senate yet again. A reporter asks whether the governor is going to call for arbitration.

“You better say it, David!” Espada says to the screen. Paterson tap-dances.

“What an asshole,” Pigeon says.

“Governor, thank you for your service,” Espada chimes in. “And now, we’re going to slam you.”

Pedro Espada has been cast as the prime villain in the Albany mess—and he’s giving an amazing performance in a role he loves. Politics more than ever is a blood sport, and Espada, a former boxer, relishes playing the toughest guy in the room. If collateral damage is the 1.1 million kids in the city’s public-school system, or the thousands of tenants whose rents will soar, or the gay couples who still can’t legally marry—well, that’s too bad. Espada has scores to settle.

He is not, however, without redeeming qualities: Espada, the founder of a network of medical centers, has delivered badly needed health care to his constituents. He raised $300,000 for a man struck by a subway train. And he has a dark charisma that complements his shrewd tactical mind.

He needs all those skills. Espada has been dogged by investigations for more than ten years and is currently being scrutinized by both state attorney general Andrew Cuomo and Bronx district attorney Robert Johnson, who are trying to determine whether Espada violated campaign-finance laws and whether he actually lives in the Bronx district he represents. “He’s a little bit like Evita Perón,” says Liz Krueger, a Democratic state senator from Manhattan’s East Side. “Espada is always saying he’s ‘of the people,’ but he’s been stealing from the people as long as he’s been in office.”

Espada isn’t solely to blame for the Albany calamity. He’s being used by the Republicans, who are fighting a desperate rearguard action to hold on to power in the face of ominous electoral demographic changes, and by the powerful real-estate lobby, which is fending off regulatory reforms that would cost it millions. Espada is also a product of a Bronx political culture where elected office is treated as a family fiefdom (a concept that’s not geographically or ethnically limited, of course) and multiple politicians are under investigation or indictment. He’s a creature, too, of an Albany system in which a handful of leaders have long dominated the real decision-making, so individual members grew adept at splitting up the spoils. Plus the Democrats are incompetent.

But Espada is a willing tool, and he’s an extreme example of the self-dealing dysfunction. He’s exploiting a particularly fraught moment, when Albany’s old leadership system has broken down and allowed legislators rare autonomy—which they’ve used to fight, endlessly, among themselves. And he’s taken a legitimate problem—the underrepresentation of Latino voters—and twisted it to his own purposes. “Pedro has no moral center whatsoever,” one Bronx Democrat says. “There is a fundamental difference between negotiating policy issues and horse-trading within the rules. Pedro is not within the rules. This is about self-aggrandizement. For him, this is about ‘What do I need?’ ”

Espada, naturally, has a different perspective on his actions: that it’s all been in pursuit of true, selfless democracy, and that he’s saddened by the gridlock. “Plotting [the coup] was fun,” he allows. “The actualizing was fun—it was a highly dramatic moment, testing your willpower and courage. This stuff—it’s not fun anymore. We really are hurting people right now.” Yet there’s an odd twinkle in his eye as he says it.

He was born in Coamo, a tiny town in south-central Puerto Rico, the eldest of six children. His father was fighting in Korea at the time; when Pedro Sr. returned, he moved to the South Bronx, following an older brother. The rest of the family joined them several years later.

“My father was a college graduate in Puerto Rico, but he did not speak the English language,” Espada says. “So he became a short-order cook. Being reduced from being a college graduate to a short-order cook to then seeing his family grow up on public assistance wore him down. He became victim to many demons, mostly alcohol, and that ruined our family. So by the age of 13, I was the head of my family, and my father was basically out of the home.”


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