As the details leak about what David Paterson will propose Tuesday in his budget for 2009 – a budget which will have to bridge a $15 billion deficit – State Senator Malcolm Smith's words to a coalition of progressive supporters who met at New York University Friday were improbably upbeat.
"For the first time in forty years we have the opportunity to create an agenda in the people's interest, and we are committed to do it," Smith said. "Creating and protecting jobs, promoting economic development, expanding access to an improving health care and reforming health care are things that Democrats and the Center for Working Families hopes to accomplish."
He went on to address the state's fiscal bind, and how he would approach this year's budget.
"Where there's wasteful spending, we will confront it and we will cut it. At the same time, and you know as well as I do, we will do our utmost to protect essential services in education, in health care, in law enforcement, as we have sought to do in every prior year's budget," Smith said. "We need to re-examine the state tax code for individuals and businesses and reduce burden on working families and make sure our state tax structure is fair and spreads the load correctly."
His words were met with warm applause.
This was Smith's ideological left flank, and a crucial constituency: the Working Families Party was certainly a factor in his Democratic conference's gains in the election. As Smith angles to lead his conference in the majority, he was telling his audience pretty much exactly what they wanted to hear.
Dan Cantor, executive director of the WFP, welcomed Smith's words.
"I think at the end of the day, people voted for change and they're going to get it. The road is winding, but it seems that that's where it's going to end up," he said.
I asked Cantor whether he thought the Democrats would be able to govern effectively and push a progressive agenda with such a narrow margin in the chamber.
"It seems to me the legislative process is exactly that: a process," he said. "So you can articulate a kind of view, but it's not static. So the work you do in grassroots lobbying the work you do with editorial boards, all of that can change the relative balance of forces, and persuade legislators who were maybe on the fence to fall of on your side."
A few of the conference's other attendees were less optimistic. "It's like saying the sky is rosy while it's falling on you," one person said of Smith's speech. Another thought his rhetoric was "welcome, but very ambitious."
Smith, who at times has sounded distinctly like a conservative Democrat, is now positioning himself alongside some of the more liberal members of his conference who have been standing by him. He signaled this shift when he abandoned a deal with the so-called Gang of Three that reportedly would have kept gay marriage from passing this year.
The question now is whether he'll be able to do this and still attract support from moderate Republicans, which is looking increasingly necessary for Smith to assembly the 32 votes needed to be elected majority leader of his chamber.