Staten Islanders await decision day in Albany

Andrew J Lanza

June 15, 2009

ALBANY -- State Senate lawmakers in Albany could be headed for an historic power-sharing arrangement if renegade Democratic state Sen. Hiram Monserrate backs off his plan to vote with Senate Republicans.

Monserrate and fellow Democratic state Sen. Pedro Espada threw the state capital into chaos last Monday when they announced that they would conference with the GOP. The coup gave Republicans 32 votes in the upper house, deposing Democratic Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and sending the Democrats to court in a bid to block the move.


A State Supreme Court judge is expected to rule today on who controls the Senate. Monserrate, of Queens, last night was said to be negotiating with other Democrats about returning to their ranks, according to published reports.

However, in an interview with The New York Times, Espada said he and his fellow dissident Democrat were not turning back.

"Monserrate stays with Espada, and Espada stays put, too," Espada told the paper, adding that he expected the Senate to begin its session this afternoon regardless of whether Democrats show up. "We need to get back to business."

If Monserrate returns and Democrats and Republicans are left with 31 votes each in the Senate, Democratic state Sen. Diane Savino said that lawmakers could still tackle pressing issues such as extending mayoral control of the city school system. But with no lieutenant governor in office, there is no way for lawmakers to break legislative ties.

Under a power-sharing agreement, Ms. Savino (D-North Shore/ Brooklyn) said that there would be no declared majority leader, but that Republican and Democratic conference leaders would meet to set an agenda for the final weeks of the legislative session "without partisan bitterness."

"I wonder if that wouldn't be better for all of us," Ms. Savino said. "We might actually see real coalition government."

Ms. Savino said she knew of no other time in state history that such an arrangement had been attempted.

In addition to mayoral control, Ms. Savino said lawmakers could also look to address a city tax package that calls for new sales taxes, legislation that she calls "critical" to the city's budget.

State Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) said regardless of which party claims the majority, "32 votes gets legislation passed. We need to get back to the table and forge consensus."

As for any power-sharing agreement, Lanza said, "That's what we're supposed to be doing to begin with: Power-sharing, giving power to the committee chairs. That's what last Monday was all about."

While lamenting the legislative days lost to the chaos, Lanza said lawmakers could "in one day put before the Senate every piece of legislation" that was set to go the floor last week.

Said Lanza, "Anything that gets us back to the table is a positive. That's why I'm part of this 32-vote bloc for change."

Both sides appear to have ignored Justice Thomas McNamara's plea to resolve their differences over the weekend and negate today's court proceeding, according to published reports.

Robert B. Ward of SUNY's Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany predicted the case would eventually land in the Court of Appeals, the state's highest.

With the courts reluctant to get involved in political matters, Ward said lawmakers may have no choice but to share power.

"They won't let the chaos go on for 18 months," he told Newsday, referring to the 2010 general election when all senators face re-election. "That would be a recipe for political disaster for all involved."

Smith deflected questions about his future as Democratic leader yesterday, telling reporters that "our conference is very united." He is facing a strong challenge from Sen. John Sampson of Brooklyn.

Gov. David A. Paterson criticized Monserrate and Espada, of the Bronx, whose coup role gained him the post of temporary Senate president and next in the line to the governor.

"If you are going to possibly change [political allegiances] then you should have told the public that before the election, not after it," Paterson said.

Meanwhile, Republican senators and coup architect Thomas Golisano, a billionaire from Rochester, were trying to lure more Democrats to the coalition, reports said. Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Long Island), the new majority leader, was assured by Espada last night that Monserrate remains in the coalition.

But Ms. Savino said that she has been told that Monserrate "wants to be in the Democratic conference."

--- Contributed by Tom Wrobleski