Coup Ends a Brief Era of Liberal Opportunity

vielkind 0609 collage Coup Ends a Brief Era of Liberal OpportunityALBANY—For liberals, this was the year of great expectations.

It was the first time in three-quarters of a century that Democrats controlled all three governmental levers in Albany, and the newly empowered Senate Democrats, led by Malcolm Smith, talked about legalizing same-sex marriage; passing new laws to protect tenants and mandate prevailing wages on public projects; and creating a new governmental process to make the Legislature transparent and decentralized.

Of course, it all started to go wrong pretty quickly.

Four holdout Democratic senators first refused to support Mr. Smith for majority leader, then three of them continued to act in concert to frustrate the conference’s ability to deliver on just about anything.

Finally, on June 8, just as Mr. Smith seemed to have gotten the hang of cracking the whip and with the end-of-session crunch approaching, two of them—the legally troubled Hiram Monserrate (under indictment on charges of glassing his girlfriend in the face) and Pedro Espada Jr. (under investigation by the Bronx district attorney for his residency, and by the state attorney general for his nonprofit organization)—defected in the name of “reform,” giving control of the Senate right back to the Republicans.

And that, for liberals, was that.

“For the broader progressive agenda, insofar as the Democrats have lost their majority, it’s on hold,” said Gabriel Sayegh, a project director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Mike McKee, treasurer of the Tenants PAC, said, “Two corrupt politicians made a deal with the real estate lobby and their cronies in the Republican Senate conference tohijack the tenant agenda just as we were on the verge of major legislative reform to strengthen the rent laws and preserve affordable housing.”

The first test may be the much-discussed same-sex-marriage legislation that, in the days leading up to the coup, had come to seem inevitable. Its proponents, like State Senator Tom Duane of the West Side, claimed publicly and regularly that the pro side had more than the requisite 32 votes to pass the measure, with some Republicans making supportive noises about the possibility. Meanwhile, gay-rights advocates were conspicuously outworking and out-organizing a nearly nonexistent opposition to the legislation, which had already passed the Assembly and had the support of the governor.

The only obstacle was Mr. Smith, who insisted that his vote count made it something less than a sure thing while hinting coyly that he’d bring it to a vote any day.

So that didn’t work.

Now the fate of marriage is in the hands of a new majority leader, Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican who recruited the nominally Democratic defectors with a “reform” package whose actual workability he still seems unsure of.

Asked in a radio interview by New York Post state editor Fred Dicker on June 9, the day after the coup, whether gay-marriage legislation was still a possibility, Mr. Skelos said, “We’re going to discuss it, and if there is a sense within the conference that it should come out for a vote, perhaps we’ll get to that.

Subsequently asked whether, under the new, ostensibly more freewheeling rules, Mr. Skelos would have to give his assent for it to come to a vote, the new leader said, “No, oh, one of the reforms, yeah, the reforms, uh, come into effect, most of them, July 15.”

Nothing to bet the house on, probably. Especially considering that the deal includes a slightly silly power-sharing arrangement with Mr. Espada, who is apparently now the Senate president pro tempore—a function that has traditionally been part of the majority leader’s portfolio. Among other things, this means that, assuming none of the ongoing investigations into his personal affairs prove to be of the career-ending variety, Mr. Espada would become governor if David Paterson were to become incapacitated.

Albany’s two remaining Democratic Men in the Room, Mr. Paterson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, can’t really do much to revive the liberal agenda, either. (Mr. Paterson, for now, is still grappling with what happens, Espada-wise, if he so much as sets foot outside New York State: “I would not plan on leaving the state right now,” he told reporters on June 9. “Why’d you ask me? Right now, if there’s any type of misunderstanding or issue of who is next in charge, I would think the best thing for me to do is to stay here.”)

Yes, liberal advocates and proponents of occasional legislative action were frustrated with Mr. Smith’s inability to control his conference, or to deliver on deals that he made, or to conduct basic vote counts.

But now they’re stuck with a Republican running the Senate. Plus Pedro Espada, Jr. Still.