State of the Senate: Still chaos

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The Capitol. (Photo via joseph a's flickr stream.)
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ALBANY—It’s Monday. Marty Connor is back in Buffalo.

“We don’t know,” he said.

Connor, a Democratic election lawyer and former leader of the Senate Democratic conference, is spending hours these days in back rooms, fighting over absentee ballots, stray marks and any other technicality he can concoct to help Senator Antoine Thompson weather a challenge from his Republican challenger Mark Grisanti.

“This race is too close to call, and we don’t have enough information to say anything else,” said Connor, sounding more dour than normal.

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The fate of the Senate, a critical third of the state government troika, is too close to call. Thompson and two other Democratic Senate incumbents, Craig Johnson and Suzi Oppenheimer, are mired in re-counts. Democrats would need all three to win—an unlikely scenario—in order to maintain their 32-30 majority in the chamber.

With the G.O.P. candidates leading Thompson and Johnson, people are starting to worry: whoever controls the Senate won’t do it by a wide margin, all but ensuring two more years of turbulence. As some in Albany have started to worry, at first jokingly but as weeks pass, with increasing dread, that the Senate could actually be tied.

As Baruch College public affairs professor Doug Muzzio colorfully, and accurately, articulated the consensus sentiment in Albany about that possible outcome: “If it’s 31-31, you have to shoot yourself in the head. It’s a deadlock. You need one Democratic or Republican defection to fuck the whole thing up. You make every member a dictator. You don’t need any co-conspirators, you just need one. So every person becomes a maximal extortionist.”

There’s the flow and direction of legislation, of course, but millions of dollars in pork and patronage are also on the line. This election is particularly crucial because 2012 is a redistricting year, a decennial process in which the leaders of the legislative houses draw the district lines to protect incumbents and maximize enrollment advantages. If Democrats are able to hang on they’ll throw out the Republican-drawn lines, depriving the G.O.P. of its ability to protect its last remaining foothold in the capital of a state in which Democrats enjoy a 5-3 registration advantage.

If there has been one lesson from the Democrats’ two-year rule of the Senate, it has been that individual gain trumped collective good. Republicans early on established themselves as a disciplined (and obstinate) bloc of ‘no’ votes, forcing every Democrat to swallow hard and vote for budgets that cut school aid and an MTA bailout that taxed suburban voters. Legislative action was often delayed when one or two lawmakers refused to fall into line. It was a prisoner’s dilemma, and the incentive to defect was powerful.

The first senators to figure out the extortion trick were dubbed the “amigos:” Carl Kruger, Pedro Espada Jr., Ruben Diaz Sr. and Hiram Monserrate. They refused to back Malcolm Smith to be leader, and he bought them off with titles and perks until they joined the rest of the conference in supporting him. A bad precedent was established, illustrating in political terms the dangers of negotiating with terrorists.

The amigos re-united against a plan to place tolls on East River bridges, killing it. Two amigos, Espada and Monserrate, defected to the Republicans in a month-long leadership struggle that crippled the chamber. It was triggered when Democrats denied Espada’s request to direct $2 million of pork spending to new entities he created (a Democratic spokesman said at the time). They got Monserrate back into the fold by re-instituting his $12,500 cash stipend for leading the Consumer Protection committee. The end result was Smith being replaced by John Sampson, of Brooklyn.

The recounting this week—which will stretch well into December, and perhaps longer—represents Sampson’s last attempt to hold on. Even if he can, there’s no reason to believe things this year will go any smoother than they have before. Espada lost a primary and Monserrate was expelled from the Senate after he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend, but their departure does not appreciably lessen the chances of chaos in the coming days.

“It doesn’t look good for us," said Diaz, referring, in this case, to the Democrats. "But you have to know that if they have 31-31, I believe that the lonely amigo will create more problems than ever before." He didn’t rule out caucusing with Republicans.

The G.O.P. senses victory. While Democratic spokesman Austin Shafran maintains that Democrats have and will retain the majority, others in the party are skeptical. Governor David Paterson said it was “probable” that the Republicans will be successful. Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor elect, said all he wants is a Senate that’s “functional.”

With a $9 billion budget deficit looming, in other words, it seems Cuomo senses it will be easier for him to work with Republicans than Democrats. There’s the ideological sync about the need to make government less expensive, but also an implicit recognition that for all their faults, the Republicans ran things smoothly when they controlled the Senate for 40 years. When they made deals, they could deliver on them.

Here’s how Ron Deutsch, the Democrat-friendly progressive-taxation lobbyist from New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, put it: “You’re working it legislator by legislator now, as opposed to just getting the leadership to work with you.The days of Joe Bruno just telling you yes or no are gone. In the past, you always knew where you stood. Now, you have no idea where you stand. It’s a lot more legwork for lobbyists like myself.”

And how Mike Elmendorf, head of the National Federation of Independent Businesses in New York, sees it: “You’ve got right now at least 30 senators who are with him on that, and if you have a 31-31 Senate, it’s going to be harder for bad policies to go forward. It could work, it’s a little bit messier, but this is Albany. We’re used to messy.”

But the Democrats labor on, and spin their efforts as best they can. Leaving Albany in July, Sampson held a press conference to say, “Don’t overlook what we have accomplished because of what we have yet to finish.”

“I don’t subscribe to the belief that a closely divided Senate is a bad thing," said Senator Eric Adams, a Democrat from Brooklyn. "We make laws. The laws should be done in a very well-thought out manner and every part of the state should be represented. The reason things move at the pace they do is that this is diverse as any form of government. Governing New York is not going to be easy.”

For all that they didn't get done, Democrats passed no-fault divorce and rolled back the Rockefeller Drug Laws. They passed a less-generous pension tier for new employees. And they delivered on the budgets and the MTA, eventually.

With Monserrate and Espada gone, and with some new blood having moved in, Democrats claim they’ll be in better shape. At the same time, “the Diaz factor” would have to be considered for any leadership vote, and nothing has alleviated the factionalization of the Senate.

It’s unclear whether the Republicans will be able to maintain order any more easily than Democrats if they get control this time around, but they've proven their ability to act as a unit (if only to block everything).

Also unclear is what role the lieutenant governor, Bob Duffy, could play. If the chamber is deadlocked 31-31, he has the ability to cast a tie-breaker in procedural matters, but not on resolutions or bills. There is no precedent for this kind of thing, after all, and lawsuits are inevitable.

Then Connor will be back in Albany, fighting in court for the power his party tasted but briefly. At least he’ll be getting paid by the hour.

Jimmy Vielkind covers Albany for the Times Union.