NY State Senate Stalemate Reveals Knee Jerk Party and Racial Politics

By Guest Columnist Jul 21, 2009

By Miriam Leshin Electing a Black governor and a Black state senate president and majority leader don’t necessarily mean real change for the state of New York. Just a few months into the first Democratic-majority state senate session in over four decades, Republicans staged a coup to regain power on June 6, with the help of Democrats Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx and Hiram Monserrate of Queens who crossed over to give the Republicans a 32-30 majority. The takeover installed Republican Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre to his old post as majority leader, with Espada serving as temporary senate president. The political stalemate finally came to a close on July 9 with the compromise that Espada would replace Malcolm Smith of Queens as majority leader, Smith would serve just as senate president, and John L. Sampson of Brooklyn would lead the Democratic caucus. Some have speculated that the takeover was a result of ethnic divisions within the Democratic party – namely that Latino Democrats Espada and Monserrate were jealous of the party perks that Black Democrats Smith and Sampson then held. While this may be true to some extent, when white politicians battle each other for power, it is simply labeled greed. The whole debacle has, of course, been racialized in other ways as well. Media pundits have termed Espada a member of the “Gang of Three” and of the “The Four Amigos”–both are groups of supposedly renegade lawmakers trying to stir up trouble in the state senate. And in mid-June, the Democratic Senate campaign committee began making anti-Espada automated phone calls in Republican districts that suggested Republicans get rid of “an indicted Democrat from the Bronx” because of his current legal troubles—an effort that Espada felt was “playing the Latino race card." Moreover, the whole idea of Espada and Monserrate jockeying between parties so that Skelos and the mostly white Republican party could come into power makes the senators almost seem like mere pawns in a political game in which Skelos patronizingly thanked them for their help. But while the origins of the brief Republican takeover may be unclear, it is clear that the senate did not pass a single bill during these five weeks, and accordingly many issues were left unresolved and billions of tax dollars were wasted–all because of petty party politics and childish antics (including the parties at one point trying to lock each other out of the chamber). Unfortunately, Governor Paterson exhibited a similar immaturity in dealing with this situation, as he pledged to make the senators’ lives “miserable” as a consequence for their actions. The recent reconciliation of the parties has not been much better, as senators are now playing the whole situation off as a family feud. Although some change has been made in Albany in the form of a Joint Statement intended to make the senate more inclusive, this comes at a clear cost. Not only did the last month waste time and resources, but it diminished the integrity of senators in the eyes of voters, who must now re-evaluate the leaders in whom they entrusted their vote. Politicians of color who represent communities of color cannot afford to waste time with power struggles when there is important work to be done. Too many representatives of color—such as city councilmen Miguel Martinez and Larry B. Seabrook–are getting caught up in legal scandals that divert their energy away from producing effective legislation and representing the communities that elected them. Who holds these senators accountable for their conduct? Citizens instill trust in the representatives they elect—what happens when this trust is broken?