about me: Sen. Pedro Espada meets a throng of reporters
outside the state Capitol.
struggles in state government push reform to the back burner
May 26, while Democratic Sens. Pedro Espada of the Bronx and
Hiram Monserrate of Queens were deep in conspiratorial conversation
with Republican senators and billionaire Thomas Galisano,
Citizen Action of New York released its report New Yorkers
Pay When Big Money Plays: The Case for Public Financing of
Elections. In it, the good- government watchdog argues
for public financing of elections by illustrating just how
much persuasion the wealthy have over our political culture,
and our policy future.
report focuses on five pieces of reform legislation in which,
as the document reads, “the Legislature did not reflect the
public will on an issue. . . despite enormous support from
grassroots organizations with large memberships and popular
support.” These bills, including wetlands protection, discounts
on prescription drugs, regulations on health-insurance rates,
a cap on ticket resellers, and the repeal of vacancy decontrol,
the report finds, are all significantly supported in one public
opinion poll after another. However, each bill has languished
for years in the state Senate. The reason, the report states,
is found in the campaign contributions. In each case, contributions
from industries that oppose the reform legislation outpaced
contributions from supporters by more than 9 to 1.
And although the report is thorough enough, with persuasive
arguments and supporting facts, nothing could have proven
the thesis that big money corrupts politics as clearly as
the events of June 8.
should have offered Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) a blindfold
and cigarette. On Monday (June 15), standing as erect as possible,
his left eye twitching, the embattled majority leader of the
New York State Senate introduced the new leader of the Democratic
conference, Sen. John Sampson (D-Brooklyn). It was a concession
that the Democrats had to make to woo back Monserrate.
wouldn’t have come back if Smith remained,” says Sen. Neil
Breslin (D-Albany). Monserrate, he says, was angered by the
small number of member items Smith had given him from the
discretionary portion of the state budget.
Breslin, who competed against Smith for the majority leader
position, now says, “I don’t know where my head was.” Smith’s
tenure as leader, contending with an opportunistic cabal out
to undercut him, is one that Breslin doesn’t envy. “He has
done, under the circumstances, a remarkable job. Smith has
been the victim.”
Now, with Monserrate back in the Democratic conference, the
Republicans and Democrats are tied 31 to 31, with no lieutenant
governor to break the tie. The legislators’ vain hope that
the courts would decide on the legitimacy of the May 8 leadership
vote has died with State Supreme Court Justice Thomas McNamara’s
dismissal of the Democrats’ lawsuit challenging the vote’s
Breslin reads from the decision: “The constitution leaves
to the Senate the responsibility of selecting a temporary
president. The issues raised by the parliamentary maneuvering
on the Senate floor and the issue of whether a new temporary
president may be chosen without first removing the incumbent.
. . . these questions should be answered by the Senate and
not by the court.”
The Republicans, along with Espada, have tried to hold session,
but failed due to a lack of quorum. The Democrats have offered
power-sharing compromises that the Republicans have rebuffed.
In the final days of the legislative session, when we would
usually see a flurry of legislative action, nothing is getting
made an offer,” Breslin says. “We said, ‘Let’s stop the posturing
and the theatrics. Let’s meet at a table and decide the 100
or so bills that we need to get done before the end of session.
Alternate Democrat and Republican, and leave town.’ And they
answer, ‘But we’re in power!’”
show of support: Supporters of Espada gather for a rally
are basic housecleaning bills that need to be attended to,
Breslin says, that include bonding issues and the extension
of sales tax.
are many localities that are on fiscal years that begin July
1st,” says Blair Horner of New York Public Interest Research
Group. “So they are putting their budgets together—New York
City is one of them—they have either proposals to raise sales
tax or to extend sales tax, and they expire June 30th. So,
localities could be faced with cutting services or raising
property taxes to compensate for a failure to extend those
For a statewide example of the Senate’s leadership stalemate,
Horner points to the extension for the bottle bill. “The law
was passed, the courts threw it out,” he says. “There is a
legislative fix for that, but what happens?” If the Senate
doesn’t move on the legislation, the state, he says, “could
have a $150 million hole in its budget ’cause the Senate can’t
get its act together.”
And as far as reform legislation, Horner says, everything
has been derailed. “Ethics reform and campaign finance are
gone, family leave is gone, school governance in New York
City is gone.”
was all about power,” Breslin says. “It has nothing to do
Jessica Wisneski, campaigns director for Citizen Action, points
out that the morning of the coup, reform legislation that
would have begun the establishment of public financing for
elections was set to move out of the Elections Committee.
“Finally, our bill, after four years of the Senate not doing
anything with it, was going to be moving out of the final
Elections Committee meeting.”
The public-financing legislation that Citizen Action was pushing,
she says, would have been phased in over the next four years,
with the comptroller’s race in 2010, the legislative races
in 2012, and statewide races in 2014.
got the Assembly to introduce their bill last year, and they
passed it,” she says. “The same bill has been introduced again,
and will probably be passed. And we had been working really
hard on the Senate. We had gotten them to introduce a bill,
and pass it through committee. We were really hopeful in these
last two weeks that we would shore up support. I don’t think
there were any Senate Democrats who were flatly against it.”
Along with clean elections, all five pieces of legislation
examined in Citizen Action’s May report, Wisneski says, were
in play before the coup.
much more evidence of the power of money in politics do we
need?” Wisneski asks. “People are at their wits’ end.”
had HMO reform. We had this enormous, 40-page bill,” Breslin
says, that would stipulate that the insurers would have to
get prior approval from the Insurance Department before they
could raise rates. “That doesn’t seem like rocket science,
and we were all set to go. But then this alleged coup was
like putting a pin into a balloon.”
The Senate Coup: a Timeline
August 2008: Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Long Island)
sends erstwhile gubernatorial candidate and Rochester tycoon
Tom Golisano a letter pleading for his help in holding onto
the Republican majority in the upcoming election, making a
case that the GOP’s positions are closely aligned with the
billionaire’s. Golisano has been funneling big money to Democratic
campaigns across the state through his PAC, Responsible New
York, hoping that a change in leadership in the Senate will
“reform” Albany government.
4: Democrats win control of the New York state Senate,
after decades of being in the minority, with a fragile 32-30
majority. Democrat Pedro Espada wins his election bid in the
33rd District of the state Senate, representing the Bronx,
despite numerous allegations of ethical misconduct. As well
as facing fines for being chronically resistant to disclosing
campaign contributions, Espada is under investigation by Attorney
General Andrew Cuomo for allegedly using funds directed to
his nonprofit, Soundview Health Clinic, for political campaigns.
In 2005, six of Soundview’s employees were convicted of directing
the clinic’s funds, meant for the elderly and indigent, into
a previous Espada Senate campaign.
5: Espada forms an independent caucus along with fellow
Democratic Sens. Hiram Monserrate from Queens, Ruben Diaz,
Sr. of the Bronx, and Carl Kruger of Brooklyn. The renegade
legislators, dubbed by the media as the Gang of Four, refuse
to caucus with the Democrats, threatening the ascension of
Minority Leader Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) to the position of
majority leader, and positioning themselves for considerable
leverage in negotiations for committee chairmanships and lulus.
9-10: Now known as the Gang of Three, Espada, Kruger,
and Diaz secure powerful concessions from Smith in return
for their support of his leadership. Along with committee
chairmanships, Espada would be named the majority leader,
while Smith would be made the president pro tem. However,
the three men still aren’t satisfied, and they go to the press
to complain. Smith announces that the deal is off.
19: Monserrate is arrested for allegedly slashing his
girlfriend’s face with a broken glass during a fight in her
6, 2009: Smith wins thin support from the breakaway Democrats,
and starts the legislative session as the first African-American
majority leader in New York state history.
At a meeting with Golisano, Smith apparently spends much of
the time reading e-mails on his Blackberry. Golisano takes
this as a slight, and allegedly begins plotting Smith’s downfall.
21: CBS 2 HD reports that Espada doesn’t actually live
in his claimed Bronx residence. With a news camera running,
Espada tried to sneak out of his Mamaroneck house, shielding
his face with a baby. The Bronx district attorney opens an
investigation into his residency.
Skelos, Espada and Monserrate start to discuss how to orchestrate
a coup with Golisano and his partner in Responsible New York,
Steve Pigeon. The group met secretly in apartments and at
downtown Albany rock club Red Square, where they believed
they would not be recognized by regular patrons.
4: Monserrate drops attorney Irving Seidman and retains
the highly paid ($750/hour) Joseph Tacopina.
15: Golisano announces he is moving to Florida because
of high taxes on the wealthy in New York.
28: Golisano writes a scathing letter to the editor, published
in Times Union, explaining how he is merely part of
an exodus of New Yorkers who are fed up with funding the Albany
government. He asks, “How much should I personally pay for
Albany’s bloated bureaucracy, corrupt politicians and regular
handouts to special interests?”
8: At 3 PM, state Sen. Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton) calls
for a resolution providing for a vote on new leadership in
the Senate. This passes with the support of Sens. Espada and
Monserrate and all 30 Republicans. Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Queens)
calls for adjournment of the chamber. Officiating officer
Sen. Neil Breslin recognizes adjournment and Democrats leave
the chamber. In their absence, the Republicans and the two
rogue Democratic senators hold a leadership vote, making Espada
the Senate president pro tem and naming Skelos majority leader,
again. Twenty minutes later, Republicans say that a reform
coalition is being developed in Albany. Smith’s office argues
that the vote was illegal and control did not shift parties.
9: The Espada-led coalition is refused the keys to the
10: Monserrate says he needs more time to recruit more
Democrats. Meanwhile, Golisano claims to be entirely unaware
of Monserrate’s legal problems.
11: Gov. David Paterson says, “The dysfunction and chaos
in the Senate has wasted an entire week of the people’s business.”
Again, Monserrate says he needs more time to recruit more
Democrats to his reform majority.
12: State Supreme Court Justice Thomas McNamara is charged
with deciding whether or not the Senate leadership vote was
legal. He pushes sides to settle differences.
13: The reform coalition forces its way into the Senate
Chamber. However, the bill jackets are not available, so no
official legislation can be passed. Monserrate leaves early,
stressing he will not participate until more Democrats are
part of the coalition.
14: The New York Post learns that Monserrate had
“solicited a donation to his legal defense fund from a lobbyist
pushing for changes to a bill sponsored by the embattled Queens
15: Monserrate returns to the Democratic conference, after
a weekend of articles anticipating the move. The Democrats
soothe a cranky press corps with Blow Pops, as the conference
prepares for an early afternoon press conference. Smith announces
that Sen. John Sampson has been elected the new conference
leader, while Smith, likely to avoid negating the Democrats
own lawsuit, retains the contested title of majority leader.
The conference announces that it will hammer out power-sharing
agreements with the Republican later in the day. These negotiations
16: McNamara dismisses the Democrats’ lawsuit, stating
that it doesn’t fall under the court’s purview and urges the
Senate to settle its own dispute. Espada, along with his 30
Republican allies, tries to hold session, but fails due to
lack of quorum, as none of the Democratic conference shows
17: Stalemate continues in the Senate. Bronx District
Attorney Robert Johnson interviews Espada’s housekeeper in
connection to his investigation into the legislator’s residence.