Republicans, who lost control of the New York State Senate last November, appear to have regained control without an election. The GOP power play at the Capital in Albany on Monday, resulted in their regaining control of the chamber and in the process, ousting Malcolm Smith as Majority Leader; thanks to the assistance of two dissident Democrats.
It was an unprecedented scene, starting with Senator Tom Libous (R – Binghamton) calling for a vote on leadership. It then became apparent during the vote that two Senate Democrats, Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx and Hiram Monserrate of Queens, had flipped and voted alongside Republicans.
Taking over as Majority Leader is Senator Dean Skelos (R – Rockville Centre). Skelos previously served as Majority Leader from June of last year until January 2009.. Democrats had gained control of the Senate following the 2008 election, resulting in Smith becoming leader.
It was bedlam in the hallways of the Capitol as Assembly members, staffers and lobbyists rushed to the Senate to witness history in the making. Senators Espada and Monserrate touched off an uproar as they switched sides in a surprise vote to unseat Smith as Majority Leader.
Outside of Skelos returning as Majority Leader, the apparent coup d'état also instates Espada as President Pro Tem; a move that is being described as part of a power-sharing coalition.
Espada told the media Monday, “This is a sobering moment born out of the need – the need for a coalition government.”
When the surprise vote was announced, Democrats stormed out of the chamber and even shut off the lights in the Capitol. A few hours later, Smith held a news conference deeming the entire operation as illegal and assured that he was still the rightful Senate Majority Leader.
Smith said, “Obviously, for them, it was all about politics and not the 19.5 million people of the State of New York and, I would hope, that the public is outraged.” He added seconds later, “Let's just be clear, very clear, that the Senate Majority is still in Democratic hands, and will be in Democratic hands.”
In a Monday night press conference, a livid Governor David Paterson called the move “despicable” and a “dereliction of duties”.
Adding irony to the mix was Tom Golisano. Golisano, the billionaire businessman and three-time gubernatorial candidate who helped the Senate Democrats take control last fall, was one of the engineers of the Monday coup.
“Some of the reforms passed today are historic,” Golisano said in response, “Nobody thought they would happen in New York State, and (Espada and Monseratte) came together, they made the agreements and said we can get this done.”
During his conference, Paterson referenced Golisano and those involved with the coup, saying, “Wealthy donors walking around taking credit for it moments after it happened – is that reform? People who asked the removal of a colleague from office and then asked to be in the majority and called him a hero – is that reform? So we're throwing words around that now have no meaning; even ‘reform' has no meaning here in Albany. And the dysfunctional state is actually hurting the people more than it's hurting us when we put our self interests above the peoples' interests. And I don't care if I'm the only one standing, but someone has got to stand up and say that this is wrong.”
Republicans are billing Monday's actions as moves to reform the Senate. Senator Espada, however, owes fines to the State Board of Elections and Monserrate is under indictment for allegedly slashing his girlfriend with a bottle.
When asked about these possible ethical issues, Senator Skelos replied, “You know what? The most important thing is that the rule changes we've passed today to open up the process.”
The next question now is how long this extraordinary coalition can survive.