Anatomy of a Coup

ALBANY—At 3:37 p.m. Monday afternoon, State Senator Jeff Klein, a Democrat, offered a motion to adjourn the State Senate. It

ALBANY—At 3:37 p.m. Monday afternoon, State Senator Jeff Klein, a Democrat, offered a motion to adjourn the State Senate. It was an act of desperation: there was a motion on the floor that would elect the Republican leader in the chamber–Dean Skelos–majority leader, and install a turncoat Democrat, State Senator Pedro Espada Jr., as the president pro tempore.

The last word was barely out of Klein's mouth before his fellow Democrat State Senator Neil Breslin slammed the gavel. Without speaking, 30 Democratic members slipped out the door.

At 3:38 p.m., the chamber's lights went out.

But the Republicans remained: they had more work to do. Breslin vacated the rostrum, so the Republican senator George Winner was selected to preside over the chamber. The lights went back on. Winner conducted a roll call vote on the motion to adjourn–it failed, 32-0. A quorum was taken, and found 34 senators were present (30 Republicans, Espada Jr., and State Senators Hiram Monserrate, Carl Kruger and Ruben Diaz Sr.). A new rules committee was convened, and it adopted Republican-backed proposals to make committee membership proportional by party, record all votes in committee and make it easier for members to move their bills to the floor.

Skelos and Espada Jr. stepped forward and were sworn in by Winner. Walking back through the gilded chamber's center aisle toward his back-row seat, Espada waved to the galleries. Billionaire Tom Golisano sat there with aides, including Steve Pigeon, the chairman of his Responsible New York PAC, smiling silently as they watched. They applauded the swearing-in. As Espada Jr. walked, he thumped his chest several times.

"This is a sobering moment, I wish I could be jubilant what just took place here," Espada Jr. told reporters a few seconds later. "We know that we had five months of sheer chaos in these chambers. We had a budget process that was done in total secrecy, we have record expenditures, and there's a hew and a cry out there for new leadership."

Malcolm Smith, the chamber's majority leader, was nowhere to be seen.

According to several Republicans familiar with the planning of the coup that took place Monday, this all started about a month ago. Republicans were mad about a budget and an M.T.A. bailout package that taxed businesses and were negotiated in secret. They used words like "sham." It was around then, people familiar with the process said, that State Senator George Maziarz reached out to Golisano.

According to one Republican source, the Rochester billionaire had "felt betrayed" by Smith and the other Democrats who he supported in last fall's elections for approving such drastic tax increases, and stalling on promises to reform how business is done in the chamber.

Over the next month, Golisano and Pigeon became emissaries between Republicans and two near-pariahs within the Democratic conference: Espada Jr. and Monserrate, who according to one source, had felt "betrayed" by Smith. Monserrate is under indictment for assaulting his girlfriend (both he and the girlfriend deny the charges) and Smith took steps to distance himself after the incident. Espada Jr. is under investigation for not living within the confines of his district. He also owes several thousand dollars in fines to the state and city boards of election. One Democratic senator described him as "amoral."

They are, by any measure, the improbable choices for the public role of high-minded reform agent. No matter–total surprise was achieved, and neither man balked on the floor.

"I think today a bold step was made to take away the nucleus of that report and move us back toward democracy," Golisano said, standing in front of a wall of television cameras between Skelos and Espada Jr. "Some of the reforms that were passed today are historic: nobody every thought they would happen in New York state. And these two guys came together, and made the agreement, and said we can get this done. It's time we care more about the state than we do about ourselves. And they deserve a lot of credit."

Legislators were scrambling. Espada Jr. claimed that more Democrats would join him as "independent Democrats" aligned in a "coalition" with Republicans. The logical suspects were, of course, State Senators Ruben Diaz Sr. and Carl Kruger, who frustrated Smith's initial rise to leadership, as well as his attempts at executing a legislative agenda.

I approached Diaz Sr., who proclaimed "I'm innocent" before I could ask him if he would caucus with Espada Jr. and Monserrate. When asked, he simply repeated himself.

"I think it's very early to talk about any of that right now," Kruger told me. "I think that everybody has to take a deep breath, step back, and eventually move forward."

Kruger was asked if he was disappointed.

"I'm never disappointed when it comes to government," he replied. "I think that it's an art. It's always moving: sometimes it moves in your direction, sometimes it doesn't. Ultimately there's a balance of equilibrium."

It was close to five, and lobbyists and curious assembly members were packing the halls outside the Senate chamber. Democratic spokesman Austin Shafran, visibly frustrated (he had spent the hour leading up to the coup getting grilled by reporters over an announcement that member items would be heavily skewed to favor Democrats. The resolution authorizing the pork never passed.) called Monserrate and Espada Jr. "a thug and a thief."

At 6:15 p.m., Malcolm Smith emerged. He stood with several of the Democrats in his conference, but there were several conspicuous absences: Diaz and Kruger, but also Martin Malave Dilan and Tom Duane. Smith seemed to be in the "denial" stage of the Kubler-Ross cycle.

"We understand there was a vote taken after the session was gaveled out," Smith told reporters. "When you are adjourned, you are adjourned. You can't assume that just because you have 32 votes that walk out there, that everything has changed."

Republicans contend that a resolution is needed to adjourn, and a vote must be taken to pass a resolution. This didn't appear to happen: Breslin and Klein led the exodus before any vote was recorded, even a voice tally where the results could be fudged. See the video below.

"My colleagues in the senate Democratic conference are Democrats, and they always vote how they feel," Smith said. He noted the other times when contentious legislation has passed–the M.T.A. bailout, the budget–by a narrow 32-30 margin.

If Smith was in denial, David Paterson was in the anger phase, calling the Skelos-Espada Jr. action a "dereliction of duty."

"This is despicable what happened here today," he told reporters, around 8:30, at an event called for him to rage at the flip.

Today is shaping up as a cooling-off period. As they exited the floor, just before 4 p.m., State Senator Tom Libous said the body would adjourn until Wednesday at 3 p.m. A session had been scheduled for this afternoon, but Smith said he will not call it if Republicans intend to make a "circus" of the proceedings. The "people's business" will resume at an unspecified future time.

The next step: bargaining.

Anatomy of a Coup