Last year, New Yorkers elected a Democratic-majority state Senate, the first time in more than 40 years, bringing an end to Republican-control of all three branches of state government. Hopes for reform were dashed — or at least severely curtailed on June 8 — when two Democratic Senators, Pedro Espada, D-Bronx, and Hiram Monserrate, D-Queens, announced they would join with the Republican caucus in the Senate, giving the Republicans a 32-30 majority.
It’s impossible not to be disgusted by the mess in Albany. The greed, opportunism and self-serving nature of some state senators is mind-numbingly unbelievable.
But here’s the thing: The operative word is “some.” Much of the mainstream press have been painting all the state senators with the same brush: They are, according to New York City’s tabloids, a bunch of lowlifes who have stayed out of work (i.e. the Senate has not been in session for a couple weeks), but who are still getting paid. They’ve directed rage at the senators in general, and, in doing so, deflected it from the real villains.
While there are lowlifes in our State Senate, there is a real, principled reason for the Senate to not be in session. And half the senators are in the right—as far as what’s in the interests of regular New Yorkers—while others are way off into the field of wrong.
The reason that the chamber is deadlocked is the unreasonable set of demands from the coalition of Republicans and Pedro Espada, the turncoat Democrat. They argue that the vote they took June 8, when Queens Democrat Hiram Monseratte was also working as a turncoat, should stand. This vote “elected” Pedro Espada as the Senate’s President Pro Tem and Republican leader Dean Skelos as the majority leader. The legality of this vote is dubious at best—was the Senate even technically in session when the vote occurred?—and is even less valid ethically, given that Monseratte later returned to the Democratic fold.
Now there’s an even split: There are 30 Republicans plus Espada (the DINO, or Democrat in name only), and 31 Democrats. The Republican/Espada coalition has no majority, yet it wants the leadership of the chamber. Usually, the lieutenant governor would, in case of a tie, cast a vote. But since Paterson was made Governor after the Elliot Spitzer sex scandal, there is no one to break the tie. In a strange twist of logic and the law, the Republican/DINO coalition now argues that Espada should have two votes in case of a tie—one as a senator, and a second as President Pro Tem of the Senate.
A situation in which the Republican Party has control of the chamber would be disastrous. Pro-tenant legislation, which was advancing through the Senate (though, Espada, as head of the housing committee had been stalling the bill as much as possible) would almost certainly be completely derailed. The gay marriage bill? Forget it. A bill introduced by Diane Savino to extend the right to strike to public workers? No way, labor. Some fix for Bloomberg’s school dictatorship—a.k.a. “mayoral control of the schools”? Sorry. A bill that would allow people raped by priests to sue? Nope.
Given this situation, it would be a crime against New Yorkers for the Democrats to return to the Senate, go into session, and allow the Republicans and Espada to take control. The best thing to happen would be for the will of New Yorkers—expressed when they voted to elect the first Democratic State Senate in more than 40 years—to be respected. The Democrats have been fighting for this, but Espada doesn’t seem to care: He’s more interested in his own power and prestige. And, of course, we can’t expect the Republicans to be any less intransigent.
The best option is some sort of power sharing deal. The Democrats have offered this, but the Republicans rejected it several times. In this kind of situation, the Democrats have a choice: stay far enough away so that there is no quorum while working to make some kind of deal, or come back and let the Republicans wreak havoc. Currently, they’re doing what’s right.
In their politics and support for working New Yorkers, the members of the Republican caucus range from truly horrible to very bad, while the members of the Democratic caucus range from pretty bad to really good. On issues of labor rights, women’s rights, and civil rights, there is no comparison. Obviously, the Democrats are far from perfect, but it is clear that the real enemy here is the Republican Party/DINO caucus, which, unhappy that it lost power in 2008, has tried to seize control of the State Senate. Any talk about all the senators being clowns in an Albany circus, or that paints all the senators in the same way, obscures this real issues.
Dan Margolis is chair of the New York State Communist Party.