Clown Hamlet

Illustration by Dan Goldman

So, do we have a state government today?

It has been two weeks since the previously obscure Pedro (“yours truly”) Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate made that a necessary question every morning. On June 8, the two State Senate Democrats threw New York’s political system into utter chaos—quite a feat, given that Albany has been a mess for at least three decades. But it’s tough to choose a favorite among the recent comic lowlights:

How about opportunistic billionaire Tom Golisano’s attributing his meddling to the bad BlackBerry manners of (then) Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith? Or Governor David Paterson’s pleading with legislators to get back to work for the sake of the suffering … lobbyists? Maybe Espada wins for his unintentionally apt choice of words: Producing a mysterious set of keys to the Senate chamber, the Bronx pol said that he and his Republican pals were “going to open the door to do our business.”

On another level, however, there’s nothing funny about it. Already, the coup has had huge costs. Over the next ten years, the rent on hundreds of thousands of apartments, most of them in the city, will skyrocket when they become vacant. The legislative freeze has killed a bill that would have extended rent protections—thrilling the real-estate lobby, which had been working for months to move its friend Espada into a position of greater power. “Pedro promised me that not only will he bring the bill to the floor, but that he will vote for it,” the re-defected Monserrate said late last week. Trusting Espada seems a dubious proposition. “He lies repeatedly,” says Michael McKee, a tenant organizer. “Pedro’s agenda is Pedro.” Optimists want to see the current mess as the stirring of real democracy, finally, in Albany. That would be swell, especially if public campaign financing is one result. But like Yugoslavia after Tito’s death, the short-term effect is to expose the legislative functionaries for who they really are. “Of the 62 senators, maybe five have the intelligence and integrity to actually accomplish anything,” a former Paterson administration official says.

Even if an emergency compromise is cobbled together to allow other legislation—such as mayoral control of the city schools, or the tax increases needed to keep 36 counties afloat—to pass before the end of June, the medium-term future of state government is grim. With a governor who, amazingly, has become even weaker during the crisis and a State Senate that’s now split 31-31 between Democrats and Republicans, plus the ongoing wrangle over whether Espada is really president of the Senate and entitled to two votes, what looks now like a spasm of craziness will calcify into an ongoing leadership void. “At the moment everyone is focusing on the personalities and their various criminalities,” one of New York’s best-wired strategists says. “But we have thieves running governments all over the world. This isn’t a crisis in corruption; it’s a crisis in government. We don’t know who’s in charge! And that’s a very dangerous thing.”

Several forces will conspire to keep it that way. One is the bitterness that has built up during the current battle. Another is the determination of State Senate Republicans to settle for nothing less than majority power. A third is the implacable math of the 31-31 tie (though the Republican alliance with Espada is hardly stable). “The Senate won’t have the ability to negotiate anything of its own, only to react to what the Assembly has done,” says Blair Horner, NYPIRG’s Albany lobbyist. “There will be 31 blocks of concrete on either side of the Senate. No issue will move forward unless all 62 agree. How do you do a budget next year?” Good question. Especially when that budget is likely to require closing another multibillion-dollar deficit.

But the greatest factor in prolonging and deepening the stalemate, even after the theatrics fade, will be raw politics. Because 2010 is an election year, the state government’s bureaucracy will postpone making any substantial moves until it sees if there is a decisive victor a year from November. State Republicans and Democrats will spend the next seventeen or so months trying to make the other side look as bad as possible. Electoral demographic trends favor the Democrats—and the party would also be boosted by Andrew Cuomo running for governor—which is another reason for state Dems to tread water. Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue to drown.

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Clown Hamlet