ALBANY—Malcolm Smith spoke first at a press conference announcing Democrats had regained control of the fractured State Senate, but the amigos spoke the longest. And the message was clear: They’re in charge.
“The four amigos stand here once again today, proud and tough, supporting our communities, but most importantly, in friendships that didn’t even exist before Election Day,” Senator Carl Kruger, the old ringleader of the renegade Democratic faction, said. “They’ve been strengthened, they’ve been hardened, they’ve been galvanized and they’ve been solidified. So today is a day when we can claim victory for all New Yorkers.”
You may recall how often all the state senators—Democrats, Republicans, Pedro Espada Jr.—said that this month-long struggle has actually been about reforming the oppressive rules of an arcane chamber. But for the amigos—Kruger, Espada, and Senators Ruben Diaz Sr. and Hiram Monserrate—it has been about a formalization of the power positions they started demanding before the tallies were even counted in November.
Their goal has always been the neutering of Smith, and now that has been achieved.
“Once again Democrats have come together to move the state’s business forward,” Smith said. “Out of productive friction, good things come.”
Sources say he will be removed from the post of president pro tempore, which he currently occupies, by December. When asked if this was true, Senator John Sampson, whose title is “conference leader,” was coy, saying only that Smith currently occupies the position.
Smith’s ascendancy to the position of majority leader in January was initially frustrated by the amigos, and after he cut a deal trading their support for key positions of authority—Kruger became the chairman of the Finance Committee—they continued to frustrate him. An M.T.A. bailout was hamstrung for months as Kruger and the amigos ripped it apart to avoid placing tolls on East River bridges (Kruger represents South Brooklyn). And they were positioning themselves to do the same with legislation dealing with mayoral control of New York City’s schools, which coup-induced inertia eventually allowed to expire.
In May, Smith attempted to gain the moral high ground, publicly, by cracking the whip on Espada, who all but wrote the book on ignoring campaign finance laws, and on Monserrate, who is under felony indictment on charges that he cut his girlfriend’s face with a piece of glass. (Both he and the girlfriend now say she was injured in an accident.)
So Espada and Monserrate flipped, finding willing brokers in billionaire Tom Golisano, who recently fled for the lower tax rates of Florida, and Golisano’s aide Steve Pigeon. On June 8, the two Democratic senators stood and voted with Republicans, and in doing so electing Espada president pro tempore of the chamber, and next in line to succeed David Paterson.
A week later, Monserrate was lured (or intimidated) back into the Democratic fold, creating a 31-31 stalemate. Sampson’s installment was the condition, with Smith shunted into an odd role as a co-leader. Monserrate and his aides, sometimes through Sampson, started calling press conferences and marginalizing central staffers close to Smith. Sources familiar with the process say that, with Sampson’s authorization, Monserrate negotiated Espada’s return.
We’ve seen how good the amigos have been at bringing pressure to bear on leadership. Now that they’re the leaders, it will be interesting to see how they’ll actually govern. They have been traditionally at odds with more liberal elements of the conference on issues of tenant protection and same-sex marriage.
“I’m speechless, you know? It’s just mind-boggling,” said Mike McKee, the treasurer of Tenants PAC. “The point of the coup was not to flip parties, but to stymie the progressive agenda that we’ve waited for since November.”
When asked, the amigos say that what they’re really interested in is … reform.
“It’s not about the amigos, it’s about the conference as a whole,” Espada said. “In these reforms, we will get the mechanisms in which these measures are not bottled up. They come to the floor for a vote up or down. That’s the key reform that we’ll look to lay out over the next several weeks and months.”
(Staffers for Monserrate, the most progressive amigo, made a point of having the senator tell me a few moments later, “I don’t want to speak for any of the individuals, but I think that overall a majority of us, if not all of us, will support a progressive agenda.”)
Republicans, once again in the minority, are screaming Espada’s promised reforms from what remains of their bully pulpit. But this time there’s hope: They will likely find help in a cadre of progressive Democrats who are deeply uneasy with the amigos.
“They’ve talked a very long time about reform. I’ll believe it when I see it, but hope springs eternal,” Barbara Bartoletti, an advocate with the League of Women Voters, said.