The Pedro Problem

“For all of us that have worked so long for change, this is no longer a joke,” Bill Samuels told a group of Democratic donors gathered in the living room of cardboard magnate and former candidate for lieutenant governor Dennis Mehiel last Wednesday evening.

Resting on plush couches and standing with glasses of wine were some of the city’s most generous reformers-Sarah Kovner, Morris Pearl and Mr. Mehiel’s old running mate, Carl McCall.

‘He’s got to be defeated this September,’ said Bronx councilman and former attorney general Oliver Koppell, referring to Mr. Espada. ‘If we don’t defeat him, we could lose the majority. And we also, in a sense, are losing our soul.’

Mr. Samuels, a Democratic donor who has dedicated the last several years to securing a Democratic majority in the State Senate, had summoned the group here not to push a particular candidate, but to strike one down: State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx.

One year after Mr. Espada threw the State Senate into deadlock-crossing the aisle to join the Republican caucus, only to be lured back a month later by desperate Democrats, willing to make him their majority leader-the party’s progressives are trying fitfully to oust Mr. Espada in the September primary, in hopes of freeing the party from his weighty ethical baggage, including a criminal investigation into accusations of embezzlement at the health clinic he founded.

“If Espada wins, it sends a message that we Democrats are continuing to fail,” said Mr. Samuels, who has pledged as much as $250,000 to defeat Mr. Espada. He raised the specter that a loss in this low-turnout Bronx district-where Mr. Espada last won the primary with only 4,988 votes-could help deliver the Senate to Republicans, giving them control over redistricting and ultimately threatening the progressive cause at the highest levels.

“Can you imagine losing [Jerry] Nadler or Carolyn Maloney? We don’t want that to happen,” he said. “This is the most important election. Not attorney general, not even the governor.”

“He’s got to be defeated this September,” declared Bronx councilman and former attorney general Oliver Koppell, whose district overlaps with Mr. Espada’s. “If we don’t defeat him, we could lose the majority. And we also, in a sense, are losing our soul.”

Since his back-and-forth last summer, Mr. Espada has become the poster boy for Albany corruption, defiantly embracing his role as the Senate’s spoiler, celebrating the concessions he wrung from his pleading party and doing it all on magazine covers and staged television appearances trumpeting his own power-much to the horror of the liberal establishment.

So, to save its collective soul, the progressive faction is coming at Mr. Espada from all sides.

In early July, the state party-an unofficial extension of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign-called for Mr. Espada to be de-enrolled from the Bronx Democratic Party. (Mr. Cuomo’s running mate, Rochester’s mayor, Bob Duffy, was scheduled to headline Mr. Samuels’ fund-raiser, but got stuck in Rochester.)

Last week, the Working Families Party-who has seen much of its pro-tenant legislation bottled up in Mr. Espada’s housing committee-declared him its first priority and pledged to mobilize its vaunted field operation to knock on 10,000 doors.

And yet, even with a large chunk of Manhattan’s money and two political parties allied against him, Mr. Espada could well hang on.

“This is not going to be a wipeout,” said Norman Adler, a veteran political consultant who helped a Bronx state senator, Guy Velella, win reelection after an indictment. “It’s certainly possible to have all the liabilities that Pedro Espada has and still win an election.”

The Pedro Problem