Smith Balks After ‘Gang of Three’ Talks
By Michael Lanza
After a long week of stumbling through reports of suspect leadership appointments, shady backroom deals and embarrassing press blunders, State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) stood his ground on Wednesday.
The current Democratic minority leader announced he would retain his title and give up his bid for a Democratic majority rather than submit to arm-twisting from the so-called “Gang of Three,” a dissident group of Democratic senators who have threatened to leave the caucus unless their demands were met.
Democrats secured a slim majority during the election and will hold 32 of the 62 senate seats beginning in January. One vote against Smith could deadlock the legislature and two could swing majority leadership back to Republicans.
“Frankly, we would rather wait two more years to take charge of the Senate than to simply serve the interests of the few. New York State cannot afford the type of self-serving politics being proposed and I will not be the leader to sacrifice what is right for New York for a quick political solution,” Smith said.
The latest high stakes game of chicken in the senate power struggle saga began when members of the “Gang of Three,” State Sen. Ruben Diaz (D-Bronx), State Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) and State Senator-elect Pedro Espada (D-Bronx), said they had struck a deal with Smith last week.
According to published reports, the three claimed Smith had agreed to split the responsibilities and title of majority leader, with Espada ascending to majority leader and Smith retaining the more powerful constitutional title of president pro tempore. They also said that Kruger would be named to head the Finance Committee and Diaz was promised an abstention on same-sex marriage legislation.
But the tentative deal that was supposedly brokered with the help of Gov. David Patterson deteriorated early this week amid political posturing and insider bickering.
Smith abruptly walked out of a press conference on Tuesday after announcing a few leadership posts, including State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) to head the Senate Committee on Higher Education. Then, after being publicly derided and embarrassed by the Albany press corps, Smith called another conference the same day in which he named State Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) vice-president pro tempore.
The move didn’t sit well with Espada, who believed his negotiated majority leader title would make him second in command.
“I think other Democrats have to fill the leadership vacuum that Malcolm has created by defaulting on his responsibilities,” Espada told the Daily News. “Malcolm simply was not ready for prime time. He lied and simply cannot be trusted.”
Espada called on Democrats to name a new leader, arguing that Smith had also lied about the negotiation details during Wednesday’s announcement.
“Not only does he walk away from the truth, but he believes his own lies. He’s been giving out lu-lus all week,” he said. “He’s the lu-lu man, not Pedro Espada. I never wanted a lu-lu. I wanted a real substantive job description.”
Smith also announced he would not withhold same-sex marriage legislation, contrary to the alleged agreement with Diaz.
“We believe that ultimately, we must do what is right for the people of the State of New York. Furthermore, real reform cannot and should not ever include limiting the civil rights of any New Yorkers. Those issues must be part of the legislative process,” Smith said.
Diaz, incensed by pressure he’d received from same-sex marriage activists and comments by former Mayor Ed Koch, who called the “Gang of Three” rats during an evening broadcast, declared the deal dead Tuesday night.
“The gays are calling my office. They’re jamming my phones. They’re going to see what we can do. They’ve going to see exactly what we can do. Ed Koch is going to see what we can do. They’re just going to see. That is what I’m telling you,” Diaz told the News.
The senate insurgency has been painted in hues of racism and bigotry as the gang’s statements circulated through the press during the stalemate.
Espada had told reporters that he was concerned about the prospect of a black president, black governor and black senate majority leader – and that Hispanics were under represented in the legislature’s leadership.
Kruger and Diaz are staunch opponents of same-sex marriage and said Smith’s openness to introducing a bill on the issue made him unacceptable.
The three did not say who they would support for majority leader at this point.
“We’ll go on trying to build the independent coalition and get people to understand that this is not about people, this is about principles and it’s about ideals. We don’t want to melt the system down,” Kruger told the News.