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Queens Democrats questioned the motives of state Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D−East Elmhurst) and one of his colleagues after they voted to oust Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith (D−St. Albans) from his post Monday and put Republicans back in control of the upper house in Albany, while Republicans blamed Smith for the shocking shift in the balance of power.
At a charged news conference at the Capitol in Albany Monday, Smith contended that the Democrats legitimately adjourned the session before Monserrate, state Sen. Pedro Espada (D−Bronx) and the Republicans voted on the leadership change. He also placed responsibility for the coup squarely on the state GOP.
Espada, who was sworn in Monday as president pro tem of the Senate alongside new Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R−Rockville Centre), defended the actions of what he called a new bipartisan coalition as lawful.
But state Sen. Frank Padavan (R−Bellerose) contended Espada and other Senate Democrats “were victims of dictatorial conduct by Smith’s people and they had enough of that. There’s no doubt in my mind that the coalition will expand.”
Under Smith, Padavan said, there were a “tremendous amount of disagreements within the Democratic conference,” ranging from the secretive nature of budget negotiations to how effective Smith was as a state leader.
Queens Democrats, including the influential Rev. Floyd Flake, City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D−St. Albans) and Councilman John Liu (D−Flushing) gathered at the Guy R. Brewer Democratic Club in southeast Queens Tuesday night to support Smith, the first black Senate majority leader in Albany’s history under the first black governor.
As Smith and fellow Democrats refused to yield the key to the Senate floor Tuesday with less than two weeks left in the session, Smith spokesman Austin Shafran told New York Post reporter Fred Dicker’s radio show that the majority leader had prevented Espada from setting up “sham nonprofits” to award so−called member items to political allies. He said this may have been the motivation for Espada’s decision to ally himself with the GOP interests.
“It comes down to money and we obviously found out what Pedro Espada’s price was and Malcolm Smith would not give in to it,” Shafran said. “Apparently he got tired of Senator Smith trying to stand on principle.”
Espada was investigated but not charged in 2005 in case that ultimately led to three employees of his Bronx−based Soundview Health Care Network pleading guilty to funneling $30,000 in program funding to Espada’s campaign.
In a press release issued Tuesday, Monserrate said “yesterday on the floor of a Senate that has become the symbol of dysfunction and secrecy, I cast a vote to support an agenda of reform.”
He maintained he was still a loyal Democrat and would work with his new Republican allies on the framework of a bipartisan leadership plan.
Michael Reich, executive secretary of the Queens Democratic Party, declined to comment on Monserrate’s vote but said the organization continues to support Smith.
A political insider familiar with the Queens Democratic Party said Monserrate’s indictment on charges that he allegedly slashed his girlfriend’s face with a broken glass in December may have clouded his judgment in voting for a Republican majority.
“Hiram must realize his time on the Senate is short and he must have made some deal for a short−term gain. But the question is: ‘What was it?’” the insider said.
Queens GOP Chairman Phil Ragusa said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the development.
“Smith just doesn’t seem to be able to get anything done,” he said. “I guess these guys got upset.”
Smith expressed concern about the involvement of Tom Golisano, the Rochester billionaire who was initially involved in brokering a deal between Smith and the so−called “Gang of Four” dissident Democratic senators to appoint Smith majority leader.
“I would hope that he didn’t finance this, because you know what that means,” Smith said Monday. “All of you know what that means.”
State Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D−Howard Beach) called the apparent GOP takeover and Golisano’s involvement “disgusting.”
“It’s unfortunate. We had nine days left to do the people’s business and power and money reared its ugly head again in Albany,” he said. “We were on the verge of doing major campaign finance reform and what happens? Big money and Tom Golisano influenced the process.”
In a televised interview, Golisano said the coup was set in motion after Smith and Senate Democrats failed to deliver on promises of reforming Albany.
“It was obvious none of these reforms were going to happen,” he said, noting that the takeover plan was crafted about seven weeks ago. “We have a real opportunity to do some positive things in our state.”
East Elmhurst Democratic District Leader George Dixon was furious with Monserrate, calling him a traitor and warning about a growing racial divide.
“It’s going to be a Latino thing against an African−American thing,” he said of the reaction in his district. “When he was in office in City Council, he drove a wedge between the communities.”
State Racing and Wagering Board Chairman John Sabini, Monserrate’s predecessor in the Senate, dismissed conjecture that a possible vote on the gay marriage bill prompted the revolt in Albany.
“I think that’s a quaint, fanciful excuse,” he said, pointing out that a member−items budget to dole out money to nonprofits probably upset Republicans and Espada and Monserrate when it was released this week. “Things like gay marriage don’t topple party structures. They just don’t.”
©2009 Community Newspaper Group
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