By Elizabeth Benjamin
Sen. Tom Duane, whose loyalties have been in question since he failed to show up at Sen. Malcolm Smith's post-coup press conference, called in a little while ago to set the record straight.
"There is zero chance of me becoming part of a Republican-led majority or a Republican, ever," Duane said, speaking from his Manhattan home during a brief interview.
That's the least ambiguous statement Duane has made to date regards to his status since Monday's coup. In recent days, he has been lumped in with other potential Democratic flippers along with Sens. Carl Kruger, Martin Dilan and Bill Stachwoski.
In this morning's Times, for example, Duane is quoted as saying :
"Today, I’m in the Democratic conference, and I’m a Democrat. There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone what’s going to happen when everyone comes back on Monday."
The flames of speculation about Duane have been fed by the fact that Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. has pledged to push  to bring Gov. David Paterson's gay marriage bill, which Duane is carrrying in the Senate, to the floor.
Smith had refused to heed Paterson's call to let the bill out for an up-or-down vote, saying he wouldn't do so until he was sure it had the 32 votes necessary for passage.
Advocates - including Duane, who insisted the 32 votes are indeed there , even if not all the "yes" voters are publicly admitting as much - had grown frustrated by Smith's foot-dragging, leading to speculation that he had indeed promised marriage opponent , Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., to block the bill if Diaz agreed to support Smith for leader.
But even some of the most ardent marriage backers said they felt  Duane should not do a deal with the Republicans and Espada to get it done - even if that means waiting another year, or more, to see it pass.
Asked if he would be willing to return to the chamber to vote for the marriage bill if Espada managed to convince Sen. Dean Skelos to bring it up, Duane replied:
"Unless everyone is there and it's a fair and complete and bipartisan vote, I'm not going."
I asked Duane who he supports as Democratic leader, given reports that a number of his colleagues are pushing to dump Smith, perhaps in favor of Sen. John Sampson, and he replied: "I support Malcolm."
But what if getting rid of Smith is a condition of Monserrate's return?
"I support Malcolm."
Is he in favor of letting Monserrate and/or Espada return to the conference?
"I support Maloclm."
(I think we get the picture here; Duane is a Smith supporter).