Smith by a Thread, Sampson Moving Toward Leadership, Duane Flirting With Republicans

ALBANY–Malcolm Smith is hanging on by a thread.

A well-placed Democratic source told me the conference of black senators–without Smith–met yesterday and gave their blessing to John Sampson of Brooklyn to lead the Democratic caucus in the State Senate after a coup put a coalition of Republicans and renegade Democrats in charge.

"It's not clear that Sampson has the votes yet to put this all together, he's a few votes short," the source said.

Liz hashed out some more of the context of this here.

Meetings are going on this morning to bring aboard other members of the caucus, including several white members who were loathe to make a play for conference leadership without first waiting for the black caucus to move.

One man on the outside of that equation is State Senator Tom Duane. The Manhattan lawmaker, who is probably best known for his advocacy of the bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, has been conspicuously absent from Smith's side during this leadership struggle.

A Republican source familiar with the strategy of the new leadership coalition told me that State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. and Minority Leader Dean Skelos are offering to Duane the continuation of his chairmanship of the Health Committee, and the ability to push the marriage legislation for a floor vote, where Duane has said he has the votes to pass it. Smith has been hesitant to bring it to a floor vote.

Several Democrats confirmed this was the reason for Duane's bunker approach. His spokesman, Eric Sumberg, declined to comment on the issue. Sumberg told the City Hall newspaper, "We have no knowledge of that."

Espada Jr. has said he supports same-sex marriage, and Skelos has said he doesn't. But Skelos has not been fighting the measure, instead making the issue about Smith's refusal to bring the bill to a vote.

Gay-marriage advocates, including Assemblyman Danny O'Donnell, have said repeatedly that they know the bill will require bipartisan support, so it shouldn't matter who is in charge of the chamber. Clearly Smith, for all his rhetoric of support, was in no rush to act.

UPDATE: Democrats emerged from a closed-door conference around 11 a.m., and Smith is still in charge.

"There's been no change in that regard," State Senator Bill Perkins told me in a brief phone interview.

Sources said that Sampson attended the meeting, and that there seems to be a "mutual understanding" that if Smith cannot set things straigt, or if a change at the top is required to do so, the Brooklyn Democrat would take over. Smith by a Thread, Sampson Moving Toward Leadership, Duane Flirting With Republicans