Showdown in Albany: September 2009
The month-long standoff in the New York Senate was one of the more unusual legislative spectacles in recent memory.
By Irene Jay Liu
When Democrats won control of the New York Senate last November after nearly 70 years in the minority, Senate Democratic Leader Malcolm Smith triumphantly declared, “Today, change begins.”
While few expected Republicans to go quietly into the minority, no one predicted a GOP-led leadership revolt.
On June 8, the chamber’s 30 Republicans and two dissident Democrats staged a stunning coup, seized control of the Senate, and set off a summer stalemate that paralyzed the state’s upper chamber for more than four weeks. Republican Senator Thomas Libous introduced a resolution electing Democratic Senator Pedro Espada (left) as president pro tempore and Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos as Senate majority leader, ousting Queens Democrat Smith, who had been elected to both positions in January.
The insurgent coalition made its move with two weeks remaining on the legislative calendar, a session already beset by a billion-dollar budget deficit and bitter partisan strife.
Democrats scrambled to block the move, calling for the Senate to adjourn and filed out of the chamber. Staffers turned down the chamber lights and shut off microphones and television cameras.
The 30 Republicans and the two dissident Democrats—Espada from the Bronx and Senator Hiram Monserrate of Queens—voted to pass the resolution and a rules change that would establish more equality between the minority and majority parties in the Senate.
In the darkened chamber, Espada and Skelos were sworn into their new positions.
The fight in New York came against a background of historic change. When Democrats took control of the Senate in November 2008, it was the first time since 1935 that the party had control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s seat. Even so, the margin of control was only two votes, the same number the Republicans claimed before November’s election.
Governor David Paterson only has been in office since the March 2008 resignation of Eliot Spitzer. That move left his previous post as lieutenant governor vacant and meant the president pro tempore of the Senate was next in line to be governor.
Even though the Democrats won control, it took them two months of internal maneuvering to agree on the leadership. Espada was one of the “Gang of Four” Democrats who withheld support of Smith shortly after the November election, imperiling Democrats’ hold on the majority and delaying their transition for months.
That was the backdrop for the coup, which was the brainchild of mercurial billionaire B. Thomas Golisano, founder of the payroll outsourcing firm Paychex and a three-time unsuccessful candidate for governor.
Golisano had spent millions of his fortune aiding the Democratic takeover of the Senate, only to be disappointed by Democrats’ votes for the FY 2010 budget in April, which he felt did not cut spending enough and included a tax hike on the wealthy. In May, Golisano announced that he was moving to Florida to escape New York’s taxes.
Golisano said he began planning to overthrow Smith in the spring. After spending millions to help Democrats win the majority, Golisano expected Smith to grant him an attentive audience. Instead, Golisano said, the Democratic leader fiddled with his BlackBerry.
“I thought it was very rude,” Golisano said one day after the coup.
So he set out to bring the Republican leadership on board and then to recruit Democrats to cross over. Espada, who had once caucused with Senate Republicans, agreed to join the effort and and in turn recruited Monserrate.
Even after he threw his support behind Smith in January, Espada clashed with Senate leadership over office space, resources, discretionary grants, and bills being stalled in the housing committee, which Espada chaired.
Monserrate was also a member of the original “Gang of Four,” but was quickly persuaded to support Smith.
Espada and Monserrate were controversial allies for Republicans from a public relations perspective. Espada has been fined more than $60,000 for flouting the state campaign finance disclosure law, and the Bronx district attorney is investigating whether he even resides in the Bronx district he represents. And the state attorney general is looking into whether a nonprofit he founded and runs as chief executive officer misappropriated funds. Monserrate is awaiting trial on felony assault charges for allegedly slashing his girlfriend’s face with broken glass in December.
Storming the Chamber
Within hours of the coup, the leaders of the self-dubbed “reform coalition” along with Golisano held a press conference touting their commitment to reforming the Senate.
“The new rules adopted today will create a more open, bipartisan, transparent and member-driven body that will take dramatic new steps to end Albany dysfunction,” said Skelos.
Espada said he had received commitments from additional Democrats who would soon join the GOP-led coalition.
Smith, meanwhile, decried the vote as illegal and criticized the timing of the coup. “We have many crucial issues important to us that have to get done, some of which are expiring,” said Smith, referring to dozens of home rule bills requiring authorization by the Legislature for local governments to levy sales taxes and authorize labor contracts, among other issues.
The situation devolved into a tit-for-tat exchange. Smith vowed not to call the Senate into session until he was certain there would not be a “circus.” The gates leading to the darkened chamber were shut and locked. But Senate Republicans and Espada vowed to hold a session. On June 11, they pushed their way through throngs of angry protestors and stormed the chamber, unlocking the door with a key procured by Espada from an unknown source.
That same day, attorneys for Smith filed the first of more than a half-dozen lawsuits that each side would file in the imbroglio. On June 12, Albany County Supreme Court Judge Thomas McNamara told both sides to take the weekend to seek a resolution.
Pressure mounted on Monserrate to rejoin the Democratic caucus. Monserrate represents a heavily Democratic district in Queens and was backed by organized labor. In the days following the coup, he was bombarded with calls from local leaders, robocalls to his constituents, and community pressure to return to the fold.
On June 15, one week after the coup, Monserrate announced that he would return to the Democratic conference, which would now be lead by Brooklyn Senator John Sampson. The Senate was now split 31-31.
Democrats asked Republicans to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement and offered a “bipartisan operating agreement” based on power-sharing agreements from other split legislative bodies.
Since 1966, 38 state legislative chambers have been tied. Every even-year election since 1984 has produced at least one deadlocked legislative chamber, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of the ties were the result of an election, and power-sharing negotiations took place in the months between the election and the start of the legislative session.
But New York faced distinct political challenges. Republicans made recognition of the leadership vote a precondition. “June 8 happened” would become a mantra throughout the stalemate. Democrats said they would not negotiate on “unreasonable” terms.
On June 16, Judge McNamara dismissed the case brought by Smith and threw the dispute back to the Senate for resolution.
On June 22, with no deal in sight and the scheduled end of the regular legislative session, Paterson said he would invoke his constitutional right to call the Senate into extraordinary session “every day until the people’s business is discharged.”
The extraordinary session on June 23 would become, for many participants, the darkest day for the Senate in recent history.
Republicans had scheduled a 2 p.m. “regular” session, so as to be in place to preside over the 3 p.m. extraordinary session. But Democrats began camping out in the locked Senate chamber hours before either side was scheduled to convene. Democratic Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Westchester stood at the rostrum, flanked by Senate counsel and surrounded below by two sergeants-at-arms.
At 2 p.m., the Republicans and Espada joined the Democrats in the chamber. When Senator George Winner was refused entrance to the rostrum, he proceeded to call the session to order from the floor. When the coalition stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, the Democrats stayed glued to their seats.
The GOP-led coalition proceeded to pass noncontroversial bills.
At 3 p.m., Stewart-Cousins banged her gavel and called the Senate into special session. Winner then banged his gavel and called the Senate into extraordinary session.
The scene soon devolved into a shouting match as the dueling sessions ensued with senators shouting insults at one another.
Paterson Talks Tough
On June 24, a clearly exasperated Paterson threatened to withhold the senators’ pay and reiterated his plan to keep the senators in Albany until they passed legislation.
“I think the people have had enough. I know I have,” he said. “So senators, get to work tomorrow. You’re not going home. You’re not getting paid.”
The Senate impasse took another bizarre turn June 30, when Republican Senator Frank Padavan walked through the Senate chamber for a Coke while Democrats called their own “regular” session. Democrats claimed that Padavan’s brief presence in the chamber constituted a 32-member quorum and rapidly began passing bills. Paterson said he would refuse to sign the bills, and the Assembly refused to accept the bill jackets from the disputed session.
End of the Standoff
On July 8, exactly one month after the coup, Paterson took an unprecedented and legally disputed step. He appointed a lieutenant governor to fill the vacancy left after he ascended to the governorship to break the stalemate and settle the question of succession.
“The Senate is paralyzed. There is no presiding officer of the New York State Senate. There’s no president tempore. There are at least two senators that lay claim to its highest post. So there is no successor to governor,” Paterson said.
He announced his decision in a statewide address, tapping businessman and longtime public servant Richard Ravitch.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Paterson’s potential Democratic rival for the governorship in 2010, declared such a move would violate his office’s reading of the state Constitution and public officers’ law.
The following day, Espada announced he would rejoin the Democratic conference, giving them the 32 votes needed to regain the majority.
“It was never about power, it was about empowerment,” said Espada, who nonetheless was promoted to Senate majority leader, though his role remains undefined. Smith would keep the title of president pro tempore and would be in the line of succession to the governorship. Sampson, the Democratic Senate conference leader, and Deputy Majority Leader Jeffrey Klein round out the Democratic leadership group.
The senators in attendance emphasized the unity that the stalemate had brought to the conference. “Some of the strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire,” said Brooklyn Senator Carl Kruger.
But many Senate Democrats did not share in the revelry—more than half of the conference refused to attend the press conference announcing Espada’s return.
Democrats emphasized the lessons learned and promised to bring greater equality to the chamber. The Senate later passed rule changes aimed at creating greater equity in staff and other resources, although the long-term effect isn’t known.
Later that same evening, Senate Democrats voted to split the roles of Senate president pro tempore and Senate majority leader, and allow the Senate president pro tempore to appoint the majority leader.
Everyone, including Espada, acted as if the events of June 8 had never happened.
Changing the Rules
These are some of the rule changes agreed to in the New York Senate.
- Any senator can bring a bill to the floor if the majority of the senators support the move.
- Lawmakers can now move their bills out of committee if 37 of their colleagues sign a petition. This applies only to bills introduced in the first three and a half months of the session.
- Transcripts of debates and floor proceedings, and other records will now be available to the public online.
- Majority and minority leaders and committee chairmen and ranking members will now be limited to eight-year terms.
- Committee membership will be proportional to each party’s representation in the Senate.
- The minority party will receive one-third of the money for legislative earmarks— funds for individual lawmakers’ projects.
- The minority party will get at least a third of the Senate’s central staffing budget.
Irene Jay Liu covers the New York Legislature for the Albany Times Union.
Photo above: New York Senator Pedro Espada holds up a key to the Senate chamber while reporters and photographers crowd around on June 10. It was just one of the unusual scenes that played out in Albany during a month-long standoff between Republicans and Democrats. [Albany] Times Union