For Senate Democrats, a Fine Line Between Diversity and Factionalism

ALBANY—”It didn’t take long for the Democrats to start fighting amongst themselves — hours, right?” said Justin Phillips, a professor of political science at Columbia University.

The Democrats hadn’t even won the State Senate majority – an elusive prize they’ve sought for four decades – when the first split emerged. A so-called “gang of four” was reserving support of Senator Malcolm Smith for majority leader, its members hoping they could win a better prize for themselves.

Three are Latino, and complained about the lack of representation in the state’s top leadership. During the week, two of the group – Senator Ruben Diaz and Pedro Espada, Jr. – said they would remain loyal to the party. This weekend, Senator-elect Hiram Monserrate was reported to have backed Smith. (The Times Union reported that Diaz and Senator Carl Kruger would soon support Smith; Republicans are assiduously courting Espada.)

With a handful of men from a single party now theoretically holding the keys to a legislative process that is at least nominally controlled by one party, some political leaders are wondering how important other factors – race, region, ideology – will be now that there’s no partisan balancing.

Phillips, the Columbia professor, pointed to Massachusetts, where Democrats outnumber Republican voters and control each statewide office.

“You get lots of really nasty factionalizations, and sometimes it’s hard to get things done,” he said. “When you look at the New York Senate you see that as well, even though there’s a narrow margin.”

Two important cleavages are race and region. The ethnic and racial undercurrent of the “gang of four” movement illustrates the first point.

For example, Diaz, a Pentecostal minister, is also the ideological antithesis of most of the Democratic conference on social issues like same-sex marriage. With such a thin margin, observers say, it’s going to be difficult for the Democrats to ignore Diaz as they work out a strategy for pursuing the liberal social agenda that many of them want and will be expected by activist constituents to deliver.

“We’ve got a majority now, but what are you going to do with it? Where’s marriage equality?” said one Democratic lawmaker. “Where do you find the middle? It’s not going to be easy…and they couldn’t have picked a worse time for this transition to happen.”

Geography is another potential wedge. Republicans played off upstate resentment of downstate for years, and are still beating that drum. Officials from both parties north of Westchester County expressed concern at their lack of representation, which used to be clearly rest with former Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who retired this summer.

James Domagalski, a Buffalo attorney who chairs the Erie County Republican Committee, made the case this way: “There are two very different parts of the state and two very different economies with different circumstances. We need to have the issues that we face upstate addressed, and there’s a real concern with the senate and assembly being in the control of downstaters.”

Malcolm Smith, for his part, is cognizant of the problem. He takes pains to speak about “one New York” and said that diversity within the conference is a source of strength. Senator Jose Serrano, an ally of Smith, echoed that.

“I think Malcolm has done a lot to quell that upstate-downstate rift, and now he’s really going to put it to bed,” Serrano said. He pointed to Smith’s support of Senators Darrel Aubertine and David Valesky, who beat Republicans in Upstate districts where “liberal” is a politically dirty word. “We have conservative factions. We have progressive factions like my self. And that’s OK – that’s the beauty of diversity.”

It’s beautiful in theory, at least.

“The proof is in the pudding,” the elected Democrat said. “But if things continue on this path, it doesn’t look good.”

For Senate Democrats, a Fine Line Between Diversity and Factionalism