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Battle Royale

As the Powers That Wanna Be wage war over Senate leadership, Sen. Neil Breslin says the Democratic conference will continue to thrive

The Capitol is in chaos. Democratic Sen. Malcolm Smith is not one to be envied. Although he was at the helm this November as the Democrats marched to their historic achievement, winning 32 of the 62 Senate seats, the embattled Senate minority leader has since been consumed with a public fight to corral his emboldened conference members in an effort to secure his leadership position come January. Had he been successful in his efforts, he would have been the first Democrat to lead the upper house in 40 years. Instead of making history as the leader of a rising Democratic conference, his political career now is at risk of cresting on a wave of political disappointment.

In the first days of December, the Gang of Three—downstate Democrats who have held the conference hostage for weeks with their threat to vote for a Republican for the leadership role—announced that they had reached a deal to support Smith as the Senate leader. The deal included giving the majority leader title to Sen.-elect Pedro Espada Jr. (D-Bronx), with Smith retaining the president pro tempore title, giving chairmanship of the powerful Finance Committee to Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn), and bowing to the demand of Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. to remove marriage-equality legislation from consideration this session.

Many hoped that the deal would stand, despite the reported acrimony that it caused within the conference as a whole. On Tuesday, after being appointed by Smith to chair the Insurance Committee, Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Delmar) told Metroland that he suspected that the very public battle for leadership among the Democrats may have injured the party in the short term, but that one day “we will look back on it and it will be barely a memory.”

Regardless of the turmoil, Breslin said that he believes that when the dust settles, Sen. Malcolm Smith will be the leader of the upper house. “I think he will do an exceptionally good job.”

But that was Tuesday afternoon. Throughout the evening, members of the Gang of Three complained to the press that they were no longer happy with the terms of the deal, and were considering pulling their support for Smith.

Espada, for one, would not be receiving the increase in pay that has typically accompanied the majority leader position, due to the bifurcated nature of the leadership deal, and he feared the title would wield very little real power.

Breslin, however, said that Espada should have been happy with the title: “He should have taken it and ran!”

On Wednesday morning, Smith co-opted the gang’s threats by stating that he would rather see the Democrats spend two more years in the minority then continue negotiations: “We are suspending negotiations, effective immediately, because to do otherwise would reduce our moral standing and the long-term Senate Democratic commitment to reform and to change.”

Sympathy toward the Gang of Three’s rhetoric that their actions were driven by a desire to reform Albany has nearly evaporated among many pundits and members of the conference. Breslin doesn’t want to see this battle continue to be played out in the press, and supported Smith’s move. He said that if the three choose to go to the Republicans, the conference should stop fighting it, and just bide its time. He named multiple districts where he sees a strong opportunity for a Democratic challenger in 2010.

“If they go to the Republicans,” Breslin said of any of the Gang of Three members, “we will wait another two years. But I feel good in the pit of my stomach. If we lose the majority, we will work that much harder and in two years, we will be in the majority. And we won’t have this problem.”

“I hope this is the end of the saga. I hope they [the Gang of Three] sit down and say, ‘Hey, we were wrong. We are going back there.’ ” And they can come back, Breslin said, but not for the terms negotiated last week. That ship has sailed, and any deal would need to be renegotiated. “Or they make a deal with the Republicans, who then will sell their souls.”

—Chet Hardin

What a Week

Dumping on the Dump

Hundreds of people showed up at the Polish Community Center in Albany for the Department of Environmental Conservation’s hearing on the proposed expansion of Albany’s Rapp Road Landfill. Judging by the number of speakers who railed against the expansion and the applause they received, the majority in attendance were there to oppose the planned expansion. Mayor Jerry Jennings made his first public appeal for the expansion, saying that Albany has acted responsibly in previous dump expansions. Jennings left after making his comments. Councilman Michael O’ Brien (Ward 12) spoke in favor of the expansion, but admitted that planning and diligent work weren’t the driving factors behind the expansion. Tom Ellis of Albany told the crowd, “This is the first time that the city has presented its landfill plan to the public. So when the mayor says he wants to involve the public, he is full of it. Albany won’t be serious about fixing its landfill until it has a new mayor.”

Congrats on a Job Poorly Done

Despite overseeing a public ballot gaffe that left their political opponent, Albany County District Attorney David Soares (and a couple other local politicians), off of an appropriate ballot line this past November, Albany County Election commissioners John Graziano and Mathew Clyne were reappointed to their positions by county legislators. Clyne, a Democrat, is the brother of Paul Clyne, the man Soares defeated in 2006, and Graziano, the County Republican chair, supported Soares’ 2008 opponent, Roger Cusick.

Media Massacre

WNYT has joined the ranks of a number of other Capital Region television stations that have cut jobs due to the recent economic downturn and diminishing interest in local news. The most striking victim of these cuts is WNYT anchor Lydia Kulbida, whose contract, it was announced this week, will not be renewed. Kulbida, who has proven to be one of the region’s most popular anchors, joins workers from the local FOX and ABC affiliates and public television station WMHT who have lost their jobs this year. Kulbida is the perennial winner of Metroland’s reader’s poll for Best Local News Anchor.

Don’t Stop Believin’

Despite harsh financial times and a state budget deficit estimated at $1.5 billion, plans for the convention center creep forward

Some observers assumed that financial turmoil might doom Albany’s proposed convention center. With Gov. David Paterson asking for heavy cuts to state programs, and proposing to do away with raises for state workers this year, some assumed Albany’s Convention center would be one of the first things axed. This past week, proponents of the convention center received a ray of hope when the Convention Center Authority revealed a new “streamlined” plan that reduced costs for the center by $177 million. On top of their new plans, members of the authority board told the Times Union last week that Paterson “agreed to release $10 million for the continuation of pre-construction planning.”

The $10 million released by Paterson does not guarantee the construction of the center but likely will go to continue planning the convention center and perhaps securing and preparing the proposed site.

The new convention center plans would leave the construction and running of the proposed hotel and parking garage to private investors. While the costs of the plan have been reduced, the size of the project has increased, with the parking garage and hotel no longer attached to the convention center, but placed separately behind existing building facades on Broadway.

Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1), who has been one of the convention centers biggest critics, said he does see some improvements in these leaner plans, but he is not sold. “It looks all right, but I am still not a big fan of the convention center. The new design, with moving the convention center closer to the streets, is nice,” he said.

Calsolaro is most pleased that the construction and running of the hotel would now be left up to outside investors. “It is supposed to be a privately built hotel, and that should reduce the city’s role. But I do think private developers will get loads of tax exemptions and property tax exemptions,” he said.

Calsolaro said that, despite talk of the parking garage being publicly financed, he assumes it will require public assistance.

Critics of the convention center have griped, since the site near the Greyhound bus station on Division Street was chosen, that the convention center is too far away from the state Capitol. Calsolaro said the new plans exacerbate that problem.

“The hotel is now going to be that much further away from the convention center and from the Empire State Plaza. The reason people would be coming to Albany is the state Capitol, the Legislature and the governor being here,” he said. “The plan supposedly still includes the walkway to the Times Union Center, but people still have to get from the parking garage to hotel.”

Calsolaro worries that the city will find itself stuck with providing shuttle service to the Empire State Plaza for convention-center guests.

“Let me tell you, if you have more than a 10-minute walk, even if it is covered and heated, people aren’t going to want to do it unless they put in moveable sidewalks to take them,” said Calsolaro. “It is not a short walk, and in my mind, we will still have to supply shuttles, vans, buses. Someone has to pay for that, and it will probably still be the city.”

Calsolaro’s opposition to the plan still centers around his belief that just a fraction of the funds that would be needed to construct the convention center would be put to better use if invested in Albany’s current infrastructure. “I think it could be better spent in Albany to deal with Albany’s vacant buildings. I think it could go to the Rebuild Albany Authority I proposed. The Empire State Development money could go for that.”

In the end, Calsolaro said the new plan was better than the original, but concluded, “It’s amazing how when backs are to the wall we can find all these savings.”

—David King

Bad Moves

Troy mayor and comptroller say that council Democrats had no idea what havoc they were wreaking when they changed the city’s proposed budget

It’s one thing to attempt to provide oversight, as the City Council majority claimed that it did when it proposed revisions to the 2009 budget, a budget that boasted no tax increase. It’s another thing altogether, argued Mayor Harry Tutunjian, when these attempts at oversight flout the city and state’s legal statutes. And that, the mayor argued, is exactly what the Democrats have done.

On Monday, the mayor announced that he was vetoing the council’s resolution to adopt its revised budget, stating in a press release: “Though I disagree with the changes the City Council attempted to make at the very last moment of the budget process, I am not vetoing the resolution based on my personal feelings, but what is actually the law.”

In an attempt to exert more oversight and control over the yearly spending by the city, the council majority moved $500,000 from multiple budget lines, including money for snow removal, money from the water fund and sewer fund, the parks and recreations department, and dozens of minor budget lines, into a contingency fund. The argument made by the majority at the time was that the money would remain available to the department heads—all they had to do was justify needing the money to the council.

In an internal memo from Troy comptroller Deborah Witkowski to the mayor, Witkowski wrote that she was “deeply disturbed” by the council’s revisions and would refuse to certify the changes.

The memo details multiple violations of the City Charter, General Municipal Law, and mandates imposed by state and federal guidelines. As an example, she wrote that transferring $50,000 out of the overtime snow removal line “is illegal.” The law prohibits, she said, “the transfer of monies from a reserve account into any other general fund account.” If the transfer were to be adopted, the city, she continued, would be guilty of a misdemeanor offense.

Both the mayor and the comptroller have refused to certify the budget as it stands.

“In conclusion,” Witkowski wrote, “I would like to say that I think the Council’s actions with regard to the proposed amendment are despicable, and show a total lack of respect for me, as an individual who practices fiscal oversight day in and day out, for the Mayor, for the Department Heads who are already running their departments with limited resources, and most importantly for the citizens and taxpayers of the City of Troy.”

—Chet Hardin

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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