Pedro Espada’s Self-Coronation

Photo: Nigel Parry/CPI

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.

Pedro Espada in the Senate chamber in Albany. "My office," he says.Photo: Nigel Parry/CPI

“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.”

Espada whispering in the ear of his new ally, Republican state senator Dean Skelos.Photo: Tim Roske/AP

Espada found one outlet in boxing, and a first mentor in José Torres, the light-heavyweight champ. “I grew up in St. Mary’s public housing, on Cauldwell Avenue, and I met Torres at St. Mary’s rec,” Espada says. Short then and now, Espada got some valuable career advice from Torres: Stay in school. Espada laughs. “The ability to take and dish out punishment I learned in the ring has stayed with me, though.”

Homesick after his freshman year at Syracuse and devoted to his hometown girlfriend, Connie, Espada transferred to Fordham. At 17, he married Connie and they had the first of three sons. After college, Espada worked as a public-school teacher, took graduate courses, and became a community organizer and the head of a tenants association. He spotted a need for health care and enlisted a young doctor to help open the Soundview Health Center in 1981. “We worked together for three years,” Dr. Neil Calman says. “The idea was to recruit family physicians who were oriented toward working in the community rather than having patients go to impersonal emergency rooms at big hospitals.” Soon Soundview was handling 20,000 patient visits a year; it has since expanded to locations in three other neighborhoods. “Pedro’s vision was always bigger than health care, though,” Calman says. “And he had one eye on politics from the beginning.”

Espada lost his first race, a 1988 Democratic primary challenge to Congressman Robert Garcia. But then he aimed lower and hit on a winning formula.

“Pedro’s lived all over the place: Soundview, the South Bronx, the West Bronx,” says a borough political insider and sometime Espada ally. “What he does is find the person who’s vulnerable, come in with a lot of money, and beat them. Is it his own money or does he have backers? Impossible to tell, because he doesn’t file reports.” Espada has, indeed, come up with a novel approach to campaign-finance disclosure rules: He simply doesn’t file many of the required reports, paying fines instead (last month, he belatedly filed some of the forms, which claimed there had been “no activity” during his contentious 2008 campaign).

Soundview has been a base of goodwill and a source of campaign volunteers. And so Espada has been a state senator from the 32nd District from 1993 to 1996 and again in 2001 and 2002, with a short stopover in the City Council. Last year, he won a nasty (Espada’s son Alejandro allegedly scuffled with a blogger) and creative (Soundview employees gave away fruit, vegetables, and condoms) race to represent the 33rd District, unseating incumbent (and indicted) Efraín González Jr.

Espada styles himself an outsider, and that’s true—to an extent. He’s never been part of the corruption-plagued Bronx Democratic machine, which has made him enemies. “If you’re independent and self-reliant, that naturally causes a clash with the lockstep, go-along-to-get-along county-machine-type politics,” he says, and finds a corollary in larger progressive circles. “The racism part and the stereotyping comes in where whether it’s stone racists that just don’t know you or care to know you or the more so-called progressive whites who think they know you and want to be your mercenaries. I’m not depending on anybody to articulate for me. I can do this myself.”

Yet even some allies take a dimmer view, casting Espada’s independence as sheer opportunism. “Pedro is his own organization, with his own following,” a Bronx politico says. “The loyalty he gets is just astounding. I don’t understand it. People have gone to jail for him, and they’d never give him up.”

Certainly Espada talks a good game, playing to ethnic pride and bootstrapping idealism. “The mentality of the welfare state and the push for entitlements always missed the entrepreneurial spirit that I saw on the ground in people I lived with,” he says. “In Puerto Rico, there are very few entitlements. People are poor, but they make a living, the families are relatively intact. You take the air bridge over, three or four hours later you see communities with no political participation, families that are fragmented by a social-welfare system that creates dependency, very little self-initiative. I needed to try to deal with that.”

Yet Espada’s philosophical musings are wrapped in a giant contradiction. He preaches independence from the government social-welfare system, yet his life and political career have been utterly dependent on that very system—from the public assistance that kept his family afloat when he was a child to the federal grant money that allowed him to open Soundview and the millions in Medicaid and Medicare money that it receives today.

The teenage Espada was inspired by the boxer Torres, but he cites other role models for his business and political career. “Ramon Velez, who developed a lot of nonprofit organizations in the Bronx, and Father Louis Gigante, who was very much into the development of affordable housing,” Espada says. “They were the transformational figures in the community that were doing incredible things to uplift mostly the Puerto Rican–Latino community.” Velez was also a frequent target of good-government groups and law-enforcement officials, often accused of using public funds and social-service groups to amass political power and profits. Gigante (the brother of bathrobed mobster Vincent “the Chin” Gigante) shares with Espada a crossover career path—he was, for two terms in the seventies, a councilman representing the South Bronx. In later years, however, Gigante was tarnished by charges that he’d devolved from well-intentioned low-income housing activist to slumlord.

Espada’s own legal hassles, he claims, are the result of a long-running vendetta by Bronx district attorney Robert Johnson at the behest of the county’s Democratic old guard. In 1998, Johnson indicted Espada, accusing him of siphoning $221,000 in Medicaid money and using it to pay campaign expenses. Espada wired himself and secretly recorded conversations with Democratic officials and the Reverend Al Sharpton, and tried to show that the investigation was politically motivated. Espada was acquitted. Four Soundview employees, however, later pleaded guilty to using money intended for family care and aids treatment to help fund Espada’s unsuccessful 2001 race for borough president.

“Look, Robert Johnson is a hack D.A.,” Espada says. “I think he’s made this entirely personal. Remember that guy from The Fugitive? I got away once, and he’s mad.”

Besides Cuomo, however, Johnson has some company on the Espada beat. The IRS and New York’s tax department have liens against his health-care business for more than $300,000 in unpaid taxes. Somehow, though, the operation was still able to afford Espada’s six-figure salary.

“When I was 17,” he says, “I was interviewed by a community newspaper and I said, ‘I want to do something good at a community level, in social services. I want to make a lot of money. And I want to succeed on a public stage in a big way.’ ” And in December 2008, Espada saw his chance to move into the spotlight.

“Plotting [the coup] was fun,” Espada says, “testing your willpower and courage.”

They were dubbed the “Three Amigos”—two Latino state senators from the Bronx, Espada and Díaz, and Carl Kruger, a Jewish state senator from the far reaches of Brooklyn. At the end of last year, the trio positioned themselves as the holdouts keeping Malcolm Smith, a black state senator from Queens, from becoming majority leader. Eventually, when their demands were satisfied with chairmanships and other perks, they voted in Smith as their leader.

Espada, however, never really stopped dealing. The Republicans, recognizing the fragility of Smith’s two-vote Democratic margin, soon came calling, as did Tom Golisano, the Rochester billionaire who’d helped bankroll the Democrats’ win in November but who had grown disenchanted with Smith’s leadership—especially when Smith didn’t stop a “millionaire’s tax” that was part of the package to help fill the state’s $16 billion budget deficit. Golisano’s aide Steve Pigeon and Espada quietly recruited another disenchanted Dem, Hiram Monserrate. The conspirators met furtively for six weeks, sometimes in a bar, sometimes in Espada’s Albany residence. What Monserrate, who is facing felony assault charges, got out of the bargain is still unclear; the Republicans promised Espada they’d make him president of the Senate. On June 8, the coup was sprung. Espada has clung to that 32-30 vote ever since, even though it’s meant driving state government off a cliff.

“They call Pete a turncoat, but I don’t see the Democratic Party doing much for Hispanics,” says Felix Rosado, an accountant who has been one of Espada’s closest friends for 38 years. “All the New York leaders are black. I can’t put words in Pedro’s mouth, but we’ve talked about this—how [the party] doesn’t do anything for us, but it expects us to support it without question. But there’s no Hispanic leadership anywhere in sight. So kudos to you, Pete—by hook or by crook, he’s put himself and Latinos in power.”

Espada’s poisonous relationship with Smith has made any real compromise impossible. When Espada jumped ship, Smith’s team claimed that the real reason was that the Democratic leadership had blocked $2 million that Espada was trying to funnel to groups associated with Soundview. Not true, Espada says, but then he goes on to complain about Smith’s not allocating him enough money to begin with. “I was not given a fair allocation of resources like every other senator,” Espada says. “Malcolm Smith had $85 million in member items. Pedro Espada got $2 million. I never asked for $2 million; that was his decision. On the very day when I was planning this uprising and voting for leadership change, there was a resolution which contained over $2.7 million for various organizations, more than 25 that I sponsored, on my desk. If I was so interested in those member items, I could have easily said, ‘Dean, you know what? Why don’t we do the leadership-change vote right after I take my $2.7 million?’ So it was never about that.” Then again, Espada is mad that he and other Democrats didn’t get their money faster. “The assembly gave out their member items, and the members knew exactly what they were getting in April,” Espada says. “Malcolm Smith decided to not do that. He thought he needed to [withhold member-item money] to control people on the MTA bailout and various other highly contentious issues. That was a huge misread on his part, because it created a weakness he didn’t have to have. As we moved along, people asked, ‘When are we going to do this?’ ‘Next week, next week, next week.’ So it became clear that folks who had problems with school governance or some other legislative issues would not get their member items.” Dangling pork, of course, is a time-honored strategy of political leaders—yet Espada, confusingly, complains that Smith was a weak leader.

On one level, it really isn’t about money for Espada. He speaks often about “the truth of June 8,” or having an impartial arbiter verify “the events of June 8”; last week Espada even screened a video montage of the coup vote for reporters, because of course the camera doesn’t lie. Espada’s calls for arbitration are, politically, a stalling tactic. But emotionally, existentially, Espada craves the validation that he really did outwit everyone and win, out in the open. That he really is an honorable man.

Lately Espada has been trumpeting a proposal to relinquish his presidential power after six months. The Dems won’t bite. “You can do a lot as president of the Senate for even ten minutes,” Liz Krueger says, explaining why she and other senators oppose the arrangement. “And I don’t trust Pedro Espada.”

Espada’s larger worry appears to be his newfound allies. The Senate Republicans are primarily white, suburban, and conservative, and have little in common with Espada politically or culturally. So far they’ve chosen to ignore his ethical lapses because they need Espada’s vote. But he’s concerned they will dump him when the pressure and the inducements grow too great. “There’s reach-out from the Democratic side indicating that the Republicans can get more,” Espada says, sounding nervous for the first time. “They’re offering power-sharing and material goods.” On the morning of June 18, Skelos met with upstate Democrat Darrel Aubertine and seemed to be willing to ditch Espada if Aubertine would agree to show up on the Senate floor and provide a quorum. Later that day—this time with Espada present—Skelos and the Republican leaders wouldn’t budge on Espada as president, and Aubertine backed out.

“I came into this with 30 people that gave me the historic vote,” Espada says, “and I just hope we can keep that coalition together. I just hope that my tenacity, my commitment, is matched by my allies in this fight. Otherwise, I could lose everything.” That’s the hardest thing to imagine, even after the wildest month Albany has ever seen: Espada is too wily and ruthless to be rendered completely powerless, even if he’s somehow stripped of a particular title.

His chief of staff, Andrew Yong, suddenly strides into the room, gesturing to Espada that they need to talk privately. The senator rises, grinning, and walks toward a massive wooden door just to the right of his desk. “Step into my office,” he says as he opens the door. It’s a private entrance to a balcony providing a spectacular view of the Senate chamber. So what if the grand room is empty? It’s all his. What won’t Pedro Espada Jr. do to keep it that way?

Pedro Espada’s Self-Coronation