Malcolm Smith and the Worst Job in New York Politics

[img_assist|nid=120|title=Malcolm Smith|desc=Getty Images|link=none|align=left|width=420|height=238]With Senate Republicans struggling in the polls as the November elections approach, Malcolm Smith’s dream of controlling the Senate may soon come true.

But for the State Senate minority leader, the promised land is a minefield. And should his party gain two seats in next month’s legislative races and assume control for the first time since 1965, he won’t have long to celebrate.

With limited experience in running a legislative body, the 52-year-old former real estate developer will take the reins amid one of the worst economic periods in state history. He can expect that his Democratic conference members, some of whom already fear that Mr. Smith is out of step with liberal ideology, will besiege him with pent-up demands decades in the making.

In the process, Mr. Smith will be forced to choose between placating his colleagues or protecting his fragile relationship with David Paterson, a governor who has a history of turning on his allies. And all the while, Mr. Smith will be looking over his shoulder as one of his deputies, a Bronx senator with Schumer-size ambitions, plots his next move.

“Why would anyone want the job now?” said Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked with members of the Democratic minority. “He’s going to be the bad-news majority leader. It’s going to be cuts and attrition. Further, he’s going to be tested inside his conference to see whether he can handle the pressure, and people will be looking for an opening to try to take him out.”

“There’s going to be a leadership fight, and he knows it,” said Alan Chartock, a political scientist in Albany and publisher of the Legislative Gazette.

Certainly, a collision between Mr. Smith and his members will be hard to avoid.

For years, the more progressive Democrats in the Senate have been nursing fantasies of a liberal revolution. In their cramped office space furnished with Republican hand-me-downs, they eked out an existence photocopying press releases to promote legislation that had no chance of even reaching the floor, let alone passing.

With every seat they picked up, they could taste the future: a repeal of vacancy decontrol, a purging of the Rockefeller drug laws, a progressive adjustment to the tax code, a public campaign financing system, universal health care, a fresh wave of urban school aid.

The problem for them now, as they prepare to overtake the Republicans—who hold a majority, 31 seats to 30—is Mr. Smith.

A protégé of the former congressman and Queens mega-pastor, Floyd Flake, Mr. Smith is for the time being allying himself with Mr. Paterson, who has recently refashioned himself as a fiscally prudent, moderate leader with statewide appeal.

Mr. Smith says he is putting together a moderate agenda similar to the governor’s, one that reflects the senator’s background as a business-friendly politician and his upbringing in southeast Queens in one of the oldest African-American middle-class communities in America.

It’s a message tailored to marginal seats in the suburbs and upstate areas, the same moderate areas that the governor will need to appeal to when he runs to stay in office in 2010.
But on economic issues especially, the Smith agenda will prove troublesome with other Democratic senators. Unlike many of his members, he’s opposed to raising taxes—even on millionaires—and supports Mr. Paterson’s proposal to cap local property taxes in suburban and upstate areas.

Advisers say he will also resist any push from liberal senators to expand rent regulations.

“Our number-one priority is fixing New York’s economy by lowering property taxes and reducing the tax burden on working families caused by a Republican Senate budget filled with pork and wasteful spending,” Smith told The Observer in a statement.

(He declined to be interviewed for this article, and instead insisted, through a spokesman, on providing written responses to e-mailed questions.)

The problem is that Mr. Smith’s priorities won’t be the same as his members’.

“What Malcolm is saying might make all the sense in the world, but in-house he has people aligned with the Working Families Party, and they will drive an agenda totally at odds with what Malcolm is saying,” a former top aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Bill Cunningham, said.

Certainly, Mr. Smith needs the governor: Mr. Paterson, who spent 21 years in the Senate and four as minority leader, still has considerable influence over his former colleagues. And Mr. Paterson’s support of Mr. Smith helped put the Queens Democrat over the top in the protracted battle for leadership in 2006.

But a partnership with Mr. Paterson risks undermining Mr. Smith’s authority within his conference. As leader, Mr. Smith has run into trouble by paying too much obeisance to powerful politicians, whether it was Eliot Spitzer or Mr. Bloomberg. This summer he got a sense of how difficult it will be to whip votes when the majority of his conference sided against him by voting against Mr. Paterson’s tax-cap plan.

“I don’t know what his game is,” Mr. Chartock said. “I can’t figure it out. I don’t know what he has to gain with this conservative position other than that his leadership will show the upstaters that he’s not a bomb-throwing left-wing kind of guy. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why he thinks that’s smart, if he has the potential for a revolution within the ranks coupled with an almost sure leadership challenge down the road, assuming they get the majority.”

Mr. Cunningham explained it this way: “The people like the Eric Schneidermans and Jeff Kleins or other senators, they will want to promote their agendas, their bills. They will want to stake out their turf. They will want to promote their agenda that may not be the governor’s agenda entering into this $12 billion budget gap. For Malcolm to be a good ally of the governor, he’s going to have to restrain the natural inclinations of his members who now see they have power.”

Mr. Smith’s precarious position among Democrats in the Senate stands in stark contrast with the power of Speaker Sheldon Silver in the Assembly. Mr. Silver’s constituency is his 107 members. They come into his office airing their complaints, fears, desires and demands, and he makes decisions. As the master of the Assembly, Mr. Silver has perfected the art of parceling out goodies, spreading favors and balancing interests and egos. Disagreements are usually settled behind closed doors, so from an outsider’s impression, it seems as if Assembly Democrats speak with one voice.

The culture of the Senate Democrats, by contrast, is far less disciplined. Power is more decentralized. The other senators don’t fear Mr. Smith the way Assembly Democrats fear Silver. They have a hard time staying on message, because for so long they’ve operated without one.

Mr. Smith has tried to impose one without much success.
The normally cool-headed senator blew a fuse in February after several members were quoted in a newspaper column predicting that the rise of Democrats would lead to a radical liberal shift. Manhattan senator Liz Krueger was on record saying the Senate would “become a pro-choice majority conference literally overnight” and would legislate a “progressive and more equitable model of taxation.”

Mr. Smith responded to the article by calling an emergency closed-door meeting in Albany. As they sat around a conference table, he fought back tears, according to those present. “I worked so hard to bring you to this place. We have to be on message,” a senator recalled Mr. Smith as saying.

With Democrats in power, the Senate is likely to become even more decentralized. Democrats are pushing Mr. Smith to revamp the rules that will weaken the hand of the majority leader. Joe Bruno, the retired Republican leader, was the supreme legislative gatekeeper. No bill made it to the floor without his permission. Democrats say that if they take over, they want to empower committees so that they are able to force a vote on bills, even over the objection of Mr. Smith.

The tent over the Democratic conference stretches to the point of confusion. Playing for the same team is Mr. Schneiderman, the house Manhattan intellectual who recently wrote a piece in The Nation calling on Democrats nationwide to adopt a “transformational politics” that forges movements around progressive ideas; Ruben Diaz Sr., the Bronx Pentecostal minister who invokes the Holocaust whenever he talks about abortion or stem cell research; Darrel Aubertine, a silver-haired seventh-generation dairy farmer whose political ads show him stacking piles of hay; and Daniel Squadron, the 28-year-old Ivy League-educated Brooklyn brownstoner who dresses himself in the garb of good government idealism.

In the case of one Brooklyn senator, Carl Kruger, who has close ties with Republicans, it’s not even clear whose team he’s playing on. “We have to start putting aside the idea of who’s a Democratic and who’s a Republican and who’s on first and who’s on second,” Mr. Kruger told The Observer. As for Mr. Smith, he said rather ominously, “I wish him well, but the fact of the matter is that’s why there are leadership votes every other January.”

For his part, Mr. Diaz—another habitually wayward member—told The Observer that he won’t support Mr. Smith as leader because of his position on gay marriage, but wouldn’t likely vote for anybody else, either.

In his e-mailed comments to The Observer, Mr. Smith said he took pride in his conference’s differences. “We have a diverse conference representing diverse needs. Senator Diaz has been an effective voice for his constituents and unlike the Republican Party, Democrats believe in an open and honest debate of the issues,” he said.

In this Wild West atmosphere, some say it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to shoot the sheriff.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Bronx senator Jeffrey Klein, whose 24-7 legislative activism and prodigious fund-raising has turned him into one of the most visible Senate players, has been running this election season what amounts to a parallel Senate Democratic campaign committee.

Mr. Klein, who is one of Mr. Smith’s top deputies, has been earning political chits by spending nearly $400,000 of his own campaign money on other Senate Democratic candidates, including $150,000 to the Working Families Party to pay for canvassing efforts and $125,000 the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. He has spread money around to more than 20 incumbents and challengers.

“How do you keep him down? The answer is that you don’t,” a well-known political operative said of Mr. Klein. “Smith has to harness that energy.”

Mr. Smith, too, has tried to amass his own chits, but at times the effort has backfired. Some colleagues say he wasted precious resources propping up deadwood during the primaries. According to one senator, the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee burned through $200,000 trying to save the political career of Efrain Gonzalez Jr., the indicted Bronx politician who is battling to stay out of prison on corruption charges.

Mr. Smith drew criticism that he was placing conference support ahead of the large goal of taking the majority. Mr. Gonzales, who lost to a former state senator, Pedro Espada Jr., was an “easy Malcolm vote,” one senator said.

For now, Senate Democrats deny that there is any active plot to replace Mr. Smith.

“There’s not a big movement in our conference to get rid of Malcolm,” a Democratic senator said.

That may yet change. As Mr. Chartock put it, “He has to keep an eye on everybody.”

Malcolm Smith and the Worst Job in New York Politics