JUNE 16, 2009
WITH SENATE IN DISPUTE, N.Y. POLITICS A ‘CIRCUS’
Party defections leave control uncertain
By KEITH B. RICHBURG
The state capital, Albany, was locked in political chaos Monday, just a week before the legislature is due to go home for the summer and with major bills, from control of New York City schools to same-sex marriage, stacked up and awaiting action.
After a day of confusion, no one knew which party was in control of the 62-member state Senate, which now appears evenly split. Both sides were claiming to be in charge, with no lieutenant governor to break a tie. Gov. David A. Paterson (D) was offering to broker a compromise, but with his approval ratings at a record low, he had few tools to force the senators to make a deal.
An Albany judge said he would give feuding senators until Tuesday to try to figure out who’s in charge before the court might have to step in.
It was, in short, a mess, with no ready roadmap for a way out.
“No one has experienced anything quite like this before, so how do we know how to resolve this?” said Henry Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic campaign strategist. “There’s no template for this.”
Seymour P. Lachman, a former state senator who now teaches politics at Wagner College on Staten Island, said, “It’s very, very depressing. There’s no game plan out of this.” Lachman co-wrote the 2006 book “Three Men in a Room,” about the triumvirate that typically has run Albany politics — the governor, the Senate leader and the Assembly speaker. “At this point,” Lachman said, “it’s totally, totally dysfunctional.”
The power vacuum in Albany comes at a time when legislation typically stacks up for an end-of-session June rush. New York City needs legislative authority to raise local sales taxes, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s signature accomplishment — mayoral takeover of the city’s public schools — is set to expire unless the legislature acts to extend it.
Gay activists were also awaiting action on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. The measure has passed the Assembly but now seems in limbo with no one in control in the Senate to call for a vote.
The breakdown of order in Albany comes just seven months after Democrats wrested control of the Senate from Republicans for the first time in decades, giving Democrats control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature.
But the Democrats’ hold was slim — just 32 seats to the Republicans’ 30 — and last week, the new Senate majority leader, Malcolm A. Smith, appeared to have been toppled when two Democrats announced they were crossing the aisle to support the GOP.
Republicans announced they had seized control of the chamber, and they named one of the Democratic renegades, Pedro Espada Jr., as president pro tempore. In an event resembling a coup, the chamber doors were locked and a television channel carrying Senate proceedings briefly went blank.
But over the weekend, the other renegade, Sen. Hiram Monserrate, seemed to have a change of heart, and he appeared Monday at a news conference with ousted majority leader Smith. Monserrate’s re-defection left the Senate hamstrung and commentators freely using words such as “circus” and “clowns” to describe the atmosphere in the capital.
“It’s almost beyond belief,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist with City University of New York’s Baruch College. “You can’t make this stuff up. It’s ‘The Twilight Zone’ — it keeps getting more and more bizarre.”
“This will be great to attract tourists to Albany,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena Research Institute at Siena College, “to come and watch the circus.”
The New York Post, known for its occasional stunts, took the circus analogy one step further last week, sending a real clown to the statehouse, with a press pass, to pose with lawmakers.
On one level, analysts said the chaos reflected the diminished standing of the governor, whose approval rating in two recent polls was hovering in the high 20s. A May Siena poll showed Paterson with a dismal 18 percent job approval rating. The same poll showed voters preferring disgraced former governor Eliot L. Spitzer (D), who resigned in a prostitution scandal, to Paterson.
Paterson took over from Spitzer last year, leaving the lieutenant governor’s job vacant — and no one to break a tie in the newly divided Senate. And as an accidental governor, analysts said, Paterson lacks the clout to force his will on the feuding lawmakers.
“If you had a particularly strong governor — I mean demonstrably a leader as well as politically strong — he could try to lasso the troops together,” Greenberg said.
“He doesn’t have formal power, and he doesn’t have the informal political power a popular governor would have to offer carrots and use sticks,” Muzzio said. “A governor whose approval rating wasn’t as poor as his . . . could exercise some influence on the members.”
In many ways, Paterson’s low standing is similar to that of other governors struggling with huge budget deficits and making deep cuts in services. Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approval rating was at 33 percent in an April Field poll. In New Jersey, Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D), who is in a tough reelection fight this year, has a 36 percent job approval rating, and a Quinnipiac University poll shows him losing to Republican former U.S. attorney Christopher Christie.
At the moment, those who follow politics in the state are watching and waiting to see how the crisis is resolved. “I’m glued to my computer the way you would be if you’re watching a train wreck,” said Gene Russianoff, a lawyer with the New York Public Interest Research Group. “They’ve managed to make themselves as entertaining as the Yankees and the Mets.”