ALBANY—Malcolm Smith is supposed to leave the top post in the State Senate with the New Year. But nothing in the chamber is ever that easy.
Smith, a Queens Democrat who was selected in January 2008 as president and majority leader, lost the powers associated with the titles after an abortive coup in June. As reported, part of a deal that brought defectors Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada Jr. back into the Democratic fold, John Sampson assumed most power and the title of “conference leader” and Smith was supposed to cede his title before the start of the 2010 legislative session.
But over the last several months, Smith has emerged as a valuable lieutenant for Sampson: he is a capable fund-raiser, he enjoys traveling around the state representing the chamber’s Democratic leadership and he is a good figurehead; a slightly more powerful version of the Queen to Sampson’s prime minister. And according to several well-placed Senate sources said, Sampson seems content to maintain the status quo through the 2010 session and elections.
“Senator Sampson has not made any final determinations about leadership,” said his spokesman Paul Rivera.
Not to say there are not many who want Smith gone. When the issue of his status came up in a closed-door conference last week, in the throes of a special session, Sampson deferred discussion until the New Year, according to one senator. The point was raised by Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., a Bronx Democrat who is one of the so-called “four amigos” faction (along with Monserrate, Espada and Carl Kruger) that cut the deal for Smith’s head. Reached on Wednesday, Diaz would say only “that’s a topic for a lot of conversation.”
“I can’t think of anyone who would vote to support him,” added one Democratic senator, privately.
But at least one senator was willing to publicly support Smith. “The way it’s working now, I’m fine with it,” said Senator Martin Malave Dilan, a Brooklyn Democrat. “In 2010, when we have a new conference we can take the important step of consolidating the position, but for now I don’t think we should upset the apple cart.”
The pro-Smith argument is that he was elected by a resolution of the full 62-member body–the sanctity of which Democrats argued in court– that lasts for two years. Smith designated Angelo Aponte to be secretary of the Senate, another position that is constitutionally two years; Aponte has significant authority over staff and resource allocation in the chamber. Additionally, the head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the conference’s political arm, remains loyal to Smith.
Assume that possession is nine-tenths of any law, and in Albany, the last tenth has become: What arrangement can get 32 votes in the Senate? Assuming Republicans do nothing, Dilan’s position (and the presumption that Smith will not vote for his own removal) points to a clear path of continuation. Privately, I’ve spoken to a few other senators who say they don’t wish to see Smith leave. That’s a far cry from active support, but in this case inertia favors Smith.
Without a formal resolution to remove his title, Sampson’s vote of confidence may be all Smith needs to maintain his soft power among Sampson’s other top lieutenants: Eric Schneiderman and Eric Adams.
But Smith is not without enemies–principally in the amigo faction. Carl Kruger was archly cryptic when I asked him for his thoughts on Smith, saying only “people are obligated to stand by their word, and I would love to hear his interpretation of exactly what this all means. It’s not my job to second-guess anybody. I think that those positions should come from him directly or from the conference as a whole.”
The vote on same-sex marriage revived some conflict. Some in the conference believe Smith promised too much to same-sex marriage advocates during the 2008 campaigns, resulting in the failure of a bill that many Democratic senators supported. (Eight Democrats voted against the measure.) Half a dozen senators interviewed for this article said they do not support Smith; Jeff Klein, the deputy majority leader told me that Sampson is “the leader. He is showing leadership qualities. Now I think he deserves the title as well.”
In the interim? Smith right now is in San Diego, as a representative of the body, attending seminars on high-speed rail and a new stream of federal education funding.
“He’s like an ambassador for the State Senate,” said his spokesman, Austin Shafran. He added that Smith and Sampson “have an outstanding personal and professional relationship.”
“It’s very difficult to lobby for federal funds while putting together a comprehensive legislative agenda,” he said.