ALBANY—The Three Men in a Room model of government in Albany left much to be desired. It was characterized by partisan gridlock and opacity, as dictatorial legislative leaders and the governor decided the state’s business behind closed doors.
Now, what we’re seeing is what happens if a handful of other men—ones you’ve never heard of, with parochial agendas and an unfamiliarity with the consequential exercise of power—get into the room, too.
It has been enough to make some of the capital’s most unimpeachable good-government advocates seem downright unappreciative of Albany’s freshly untrammeled democracy.
“Things have gotten unhinged,” said Gene Russianoff, the staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, a transit rider advocacy group. “It has been really frustrating for advocates and public-policy people to think that two or three senators can hold up the whole thing.”
Mr. Russianoff was talking in particular about the result of the protracted M.T.A.-bailout negotiation, the latest achievement of Albany’s lawmaking apparatus that, thanks to last year’s Democratic takeover of the State Senate, is running in a more democratic and less partisan fashion than anytime in recent memory.
The governor and leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature announced a deal on the evening of May 5, more than five weeks after a drop-dead deadline. What they had produced was a stopgap bailout of New York’s public transportation system that is supposed to raise more than $2 billion dollars through a combination of a regional payroll tax, a taxi surcharge and fare hikes.
It is a significant deal: The measures will allow the M.T.A. to avoid its “doomsday” scenario of massive fare increases and service cuts. But the package comes up well short of the amount necessary to fund capital projects completely—the legislators say there is enough money there to fund capital needs for two years—and virtually guarantees another day of reckoning in the near future as an ever-more-crowded system begins to fall into disrepair.
And the final package, in terms of its revenue sources, is a Frankenstein’s monster—the result of concessions to outer-borough senators who opposed East River bridge tolls, and then further modifications to pacify two senators from Long Island who were unwilling to go along with a payroll-tax hike that would have affected suburban school districts.
The Senate’s majority leader, Malcolm Smith, to his credit, did not attempt to put a pretty face on things.
“It’s not about merits,” he told reporters late last month after a closed-door meeting with the governor and the Assembly speaker. “It’s just about what gets us there with the votes that we need to get it passed.”
This sort of thinking has become typical.
The M.T.A. follows the passage of a bad-news budget that pleased only unions that rely on public spending, and a deficit-reduction bill riddled with one-shot gimmicks. And it comes as other promised legislative items on the Democratic agenda—same-sex marriage, gun control and housing reform—remain held up by objections from various holdouts within the conference.
Even some of the ostensibly emancipated legislators can’t help but marvel at the level of disorder.
“There is the feeling that there is no downside to bucking the leadership,” said one Democratic state senator.
So who’s to blame for the current state of things?
There’s the governor, whose 19 percent approval rating from New York voters means that even when he tries to do the right thing at this point, the perception of his weakness—reinforced at every turn by a press corps that has ceased to take him seriously—leaves him unable to compel action on important issues by recalcitrant legislators.
There’s Mr. Smith, the nominal conference head who is at all times at the mercy of the least cooperative of his 32 members. (The Senate is a 62-seat body.) The best thing to say for him is that it’s unclear that any other Democrat in the Senate would be able to get much more done, especially given the power vacuum in the governor’s mansion.
There are the 30 Senate Republicans, who, to their possible political advantage but to the certain detriment of New York State, have stuck together in opposing everything the Democrats do, as a matter of course.
There’s the Assembly leader, Sheldon Silver, the last of the archetypal Men in the Room, a quintessential insider who is popular among his members but whose monotone delivery and low public profile limits his effectiveness when it comes to moving popular opinion in a way that might impact a bill’s chances of passage elsewhere.
And then there’s the Gang of Three, which notched another victory with the passage of the downsized M.T.A. package.
“The Three Amigos really prevented us from dealing with this M.T.A. issue in a timely fashion,” said another Democratic senator, speaking on background.
The senator said that without their resistance, there would have been a deal on the tolls on the East River bridges, which would have meant a smaller payroll tax, which would have kept the Long Island senators from protesting and demanding, successfully, $60 million for Long Island schools.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” the senator said.
Meet Carl Kruger, leader of the aforementioned Three Amigos, and, if you live in New York City, someone who has quite a lot of control over your future.
Mr. Kruger, a short, well-fed 59-year-old, represents South Brooklyn, in a white-ethnic district in which he is politically unassailable. He’s always had strong ties to the Republicans, and under former majority leader Joe Bruno—the last of the Senate strongmen, now retired and facing a federal indictment for abusing his office—he ran the Social Services Committee.
He bankrolled and masterminded a renegade band of Democratic senators known as the Gang of Three—or the Three Amigos.
In December, Mr. Kruger and the two other gang members, Pedro Espada Jr. and Ruben Díaz Sr., withheld their support of Malcolm Smith’s majority leader bid in an attempt to land key leadership posts. It worked. Mr. Espada, the onetime target of a public-corruption indictment brought by the district attorney’s office, won the title “majority leader,” Mr. Díaz became the head of a newly created Latino caucus and Mr. Kruger became the head of the powerful Finance Committee, which has given him veto power over any bill that costs money. (Everything, in other words.)
In February, they posed with sombreros and Three Amigos shirts and talked about starting a Three Amigos political action committee.
In March, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the governor backing a plan designed by transportation guru Richard Ravitch, which called for tolls over the East River bridges to raise money for the M.T.A. and its future capital projects, the Gang released a joint statement saying it was time to go “back to the drawing board” and calling tolls a “non-starter.” And that was that. The need to look elsewhere for revenues, in payroll taxes, created a new faction, Long Island senators Craig Johnson and Brian Foley.
In a conference meeting with senators before the agreement was officially announced on May 5, Mr. Kruger and Mr. Espada smiled broadly as Mr. Smith told his members the details of the plan, according to a source in the room. When Mr. Smith listed the people supporting the plan, he included Mr. Ravitch, at which point Mr. Kruger joked, “Ravitch is supporting the plan that he opposed two months ago.” According to the source, no one laughed.
How did it come to this?
Eliot Spitzer, the former governor, swept to power with an electoral mandate that allowed him to try and pry the Senate from Republicans and end the gridlock that has marred Albany for decades. The Democrats eventually did take the Senate back, but not before Mr. Spitzer ingloriously resigned from office in a prostitution scandal and left the public stage empty of a credible voice for reform.
After him, chaos: Mr. Paterson has never gotten the sort of grip on his own office that would allow him to play a constructive role in legislative affairs, and Mr. Smith doesn’t even seem to be able at any given time to count votes within his own conference.
No one is making the trains run on time.
“The hammer has to fall,” said Gerald Benjamin, a professor of political science and dean of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and a veteran Albany watcher, who noted that in the past, governors threatened rebellious members with primary contests. “Now we have united partisan control, but we don’t have discipline.”
One of the most frustrated—and ineffectual—of the New Albany’s constituents is Michael Bloomberg, whose friendships among the Senate Republicans he helped bankroll have apparently come to naught, now that they’re out of power, when it comes to his ability to nudge any of them toward cooperation with the majority on things like the M.T.A. bill.
And his seeming reluctance to upset Democratic lawmakers who have the power to strip his control of the city schools has apparently kept him from lobbying all that hard even as their inaction threatens the health of the city’s transportation system—and the welfare of the city itself.
Mario Cuomo, the three-term governor who, after his time in office, lobbied for a constitutional convention to overhaul state government—and whose son may well be running the state by the end of next year—said that the state needed strong leaders who were capable of peeling away Republican votes.
“There’s no other way to do it,” said Mr. Cuomo. “As a practical matter, you have to get the votes from both sides. When Hugh Carey saved the city of New York, he couldn’t do it with just Democratic votes. He had very few Republican votes, but he did have Warren Anderson, and that’s how they saved New York City, by going to the other side.”
Seymour Lachman, a former Democratic state senator who languished for years in the minority and, after he retired, wrote a critical book about Albany called Three Men in a Room, suggested that, at least temporarily, the dysfunction has gotten even more severe.
“Legislatively, Bruno was able to push things through,” he said, somewhat ruefully.
Mr. Lachman said that the problem was that two of the three players in the room, Mr. Paterson and Mr. Smith, were “less experienced,” and as a result, the state had to wait “another year, year and a half” for them to find their voices.
Naturally, Senate Republicans—who, with admirable chutzpah after decades of absolute control, complain about a lack of transparency on the part of the Democrats—mince no words about the descent into chaos.
“Now, we have no men in the room,” said State Senator Kemp Hannon, a Republican from Nassau, as he sipped a cup of coffee by the Senate pantry. “We have no negotiations. I don’t know who’s talking to who.”
For now, most Senate Democrats defend the more open version of the body.
“I think we behave more like a real Senate now,” said Senator Tom Duane, a LGBT advocate who has been frustrated by his own conference’s delay in supporting the governor’s gay-marriage proposal.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Kruger agrees enthusiastically.
“Something running smoothly doesn’t mean it runs well,” Mr. Kruger said. “It’s that, in the totality of things, running smoothly only buttresses the argument of three men in a room. And if one wants to take the position that there are still three men in a room, there are three men in a room with a very strong chorus in the background defining the direction that the Senate takes, and I think that’s a great thing.”
He added, “I take positions that are well thought out, I am very vocal on the positions that I take. I’m willing to argue them. To the death.”