COMMENTARY A Coup in Albany

The mess in the New York State Senate would make for a relatively enjoyable reality show—if the living standards of so many New Yorkers weren’t put at stake.

The actions of Sens. Pedro Espada, D-Bronx, and Hiram Monseratte, D-Queens, are as disgusting as their explanations are ridiculous. After New Yorkers voted overwhelmingly for a Democratic Senate, these two ethically challenged individuals have taken the state hostage at a time when there is essential work to be done.

Espada and Monseratte say that they acted because the Democratic caucus was too opaque. Both say they wanted to bring openness and more democracy to Albany. A noble concept, but the idea that this is what they’re doing would be laughable if it weren’t so infuriating. Or maybe infuriating if it weren’t so laughable; it’s hard to say.

Are we really supposed to believe this? That a Republican controlled Senate will be somehow more open? The Republicans held power for 30 years, and all they did was attack working people. The problems with Malcolm Smith’s Democratic caucus in the Senate are nothing compared with those of the Republicans. The recent tax increases on the rich would have been impossible had the Democrats not won control last fall.

What would the Democrats’ loss of the Senate mean?

Firstly, it would be a victory for the billionaires, specifically Tom Golisano, who masterminded the coup. Golisano is, of course, the businessman who campaigned against the Fair Share tax increases and then moved his legal residence to Florida after it was passed. Also, it would mean a victory for the Republicans, the party of racism, inequality and union-busting.

All of the pro-people bills currently in the State Senate could be killed.

Of particular importance are two bills on tenants’ rights: One would repeal the “Urstadt Law,” which took control of rent-control regulations away from New York City’s council and made them the domain of Albany. The other bill would mandate that any buildings leaving the Mitchell-Lama or Section 8 programs would have to be placed under rent regulations.

The loss would mean, then, a huge victory for the landlords of New York, and a loss for tenants.

In fact, some are speculating that the coup was, at least in part, pushed and coordinated by big landlords who do not want to see these bills passed. It’s likely that Espada receives a lot of money from landlords—but no one knows that for sure, because he’s never filed the legally required paperwork on campaign contributions.

It looks like Espada was bought by the landlords and sold to the Republican Party.

Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, has introduced a bill that would weaken the state’s anti-union Taylor Law, which bans public employees from striking. This bill would have been hard to pass with a 32-30 Democratic majority—but with the Republicans in charge? Forget it.

The loss would mean ending the possibility of actually bringing New York State into compliance with international labor law, under which workers are supposed to have the right to strike.

There are other bills as well, but the point is clear: Republican control is bad for working people.

Some are saying that this debacle is the result of animosities between the African American and Latino communities, and that the coup d’état will somehow help empower Latinos. This nonsense should be rejected outright. It is true that Latinos in New York’s leadership have been under-represented, and any democratic-minded person must be in favor of the empowerment of the growing and diversifying Hispanic community.

The idea that Latino advancement could or should come at the expense of the African American community is preposterous: Unity between African Americans, Latinos, and the working class is essential to the advancement of all three groups, none of which are mutually exclusive, of course.

But the idea that ceding control to the Republicans will help Latinos? Please. Let’s come back to the real world. The above mentioned bills would help to empower both the African American and Latino communities, as well as working-class white people. How is killing them a benefit to anyone who has to work for a living?

In any case, most people aren’t buying it: Editorials in much of the New York City Spanish-language press have condemned the right wing power grab, and rallies against Espada and Monseratte have been united. It seems pretty clear that there are others, behind the scenes, who would like to sow division between the two communities.

For example, one thing Mayor Bloomberg, the “independent” mayor of New York City, needs to win the 2009 municipal elections is a major split in the Latino and African American communities. Bloomberg has been specifically targeting people with Latino names to receive mailings addressed to them. There have been no major breaks among Latinos for Bloomberg.

The idea that either Espada or Monseratte is that altruistic is hard to believe. Espada has been fined thousands of dollars refusing to show from where his donations come. On top of that, though he “represents” the Bronx, he really lives in suburban Westchester County.

And Monseratte? He’s been indicted for allegedly stabbing his girlfriend with a glass bottle.

These are the great reformers?

We still don’t know how things are going to pan out. As of this writing, Monseratte is in discussions with the Democratic caucus, and seems to be on the verge—possibly—of returning to the fold. But even then, the house would be divided 31-31, and since we have no Lieutenant Governor to break a tie, that’s a bad situation. The Republicans want to see Espada as president of the chamber. And they are arguing, quite ridulously, that if Monseratte goes back and the chambers are evenly split, Espada should have two votes to break a tie: one as a state senator, and one as the chamber’s president. This, in the words of one lawmaker, is sending the state “lurching towards a constitutional crisis.”

Both Espada and Monseratte should end their betrayal of working New Yorkers and come back into the Democratic fold so that the business of working people can get done.