Malcolm Smith’s Changing Face Of Albany
New York State Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith and Publisher Michael Schenkler chatted about politics at the Trib office last week.
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Seven years ago, in the year 2000, recognizing that the Queens Tribune, the County’s largest boroughwide community newspaper group, was not providing adequate coverage to southeastern, mostly black Queens, we launched the PRESS of Southeastern Queens.
We recognized the population of the area was growing, but more importantly its influence on the borough, city and state was in its infancy and destined to become a major factor in future New York.
Floyd Flake led the way; the pastor of Southeast Queens’ largest church brought community activism and service to new heights, also serving the people as their Congressman for a little more than a decade from 1986 to 1997. Young black leaders followed him. With a commitment to their faith and community, they chose politics as their way make a contribution – to improve the lot of their people and all people – to serve.
Malcolm Smith was one of them.
Malcolm earned his bachelors degree from Fordham University in Business Administration. A real estate developer by profession he served as a Senior Aide to Congressman Floyd H. Flake, to former City Council Member Archie Spigner, an assistant for Economic Developemnt to former Mayor Edward Koch and a member of the national advance staff for former VP Candidate Geraldine Ferraro. Malcolm has served as the President of the Neighborhood Housing Services of Jamaica. He created the not-for-profit Southeast Queens Housing Development Corp, and was the President and Founder of Smith Development Corporation.
Six months ago, Malcolm modified his most recent five-year plan when selected by his colleagues as State Senate Minority Leader.
I remember meeting Malcolm at the Trib/PRESS holiday party in 2000. He was the new political kid on the block. We were the new newspaper in SEQ. Malcolm was on the fast track. He came to the party, worked the room and made a lasting impression on the many who spent five minutes with this charismatic, fast thinking, business-minded public servant.
THE NEW ROLE
Last week, we sat down in my office to talk about Macolm’s new leadership role in New York State.
“My job is to make sure that the State of New York is the leading state where people can raise their family and open a business.
“I’m not driven by this office to make this a career for the rest of my life – I am driven by Christian beliefs . . . My mission in life is to help people fulfill their own purpose in life.”
Malcolm is not the typical “caucus leader” – the party selected head of a legislative body. He is a lot less concerned with promoting the Democratic Party than he is in providing good government. Politics clearly takes a back seat to governing in Malcolm’s mind. He was the only member of the Democratic caucus to endorse Bloomberg in ’05, yet he was selected leader in ‘07.
He sees politics as a means to achieving good government. He intends to see his Democratic Party capture a majority in the State Senate for the first time in more than 40 years.
“Malcolm,” I said, “I’ve heard from the Democrats from 1979 till now, that they were going to take back the Senate. What’s going to do it this time?”
“Me,” responded Malcolm. “I am very deliberate, strategic, concise – there is a plan, a real plan – I could go for seven seats, but why hope that the wind is blowing in the right direction? My approach is very businesslike – I am going to target what I can get,” as he listed the targeted seats.
Indicating Councilman Joe Addabbo as the Democratic candidate against Western Queens State Senator Serf Maltese, Malcolm folded one finger down with confidence.
He moved to his second finger, claiming Cesar Trunzo on Long Island has remained this long only because Joe Bruno and the State Senate Republicans have forced him to stay.
Finally, adding the names of Long Island’s Owen Johnson and Kemp Hannon as the next likely seat Malcolm smiled in victory, confident that after the ’09 elections he will be the “Majority” not “Minority” leader of the Senate.
“There will be other candidates running,” Malcolm explained, “some factors beyond our influence that will win a seat for us. If we get ancillary benefits because of the presidential vote, that’s fine. . .”
But he reinfocred, “I am governing [to achieve] what is best for the people of this state – yes I do want to get into the majority, but we are going to do it fairly.”
“Has the much anticipated Albany reform that was demanded when we elected Eliot Spitzer stalled? I challenged.
“I don’t think the governor has failed – stalled – I would say he learned what it means to work with two other elected bodies as opposed to a prosecutor style – he knows the Senate has to change to get some real reform – it can’t happen unless you change the majority.”
“Is [Democratic Assembly Speaker Shelly] Silver better than Bruno? I asked.
“That’s a good question, but I don’t have anything to do with Shelly,” Malcolm replied. “From a reform point of view, in terms of balance of resources, I guess the answer is yes.”
“There are certain things that will trigger the Assembly to have to move in a [reform] direction,” Malcolm continued. “Our house is the moving house – 70 percent of what can be done can happen between us and [the Governor]. That’s why for so long Shelly and Bruno would do their dance. When we take over, we change resource distribution, bills coming to the floor, committees, all the stuff that is part of agreements right now.”
“I want to bring back idealism to our house – bring your bill to the floor; lets argue it; if you can convince 29 to 30 members then good.”
He believes in equal distribution of members items and resources regardless of party. I inquired if his members after regaining control after four decades of being given the short stick by the Republicans, would want retribution.
“Retribution? As leader, there will be those who would want it. But once we draw the lines we are not going to lose our control [of the Senate] for 30 years [even] if you drew the lines as a square in a box.”
The GOP has solidified it’s control over the Senate by drawing its own lines, and allowing the Democratic Assembly to draw its lines with the Governor’s agreement. When it comes time to redistrict after the 2010 census, Malcolm suggest that if a true independent good government system cannot be agreed upon, Spitzer’s veto could throw the new lines to the court. And as any political mapmaker would tell you, with current Statewide registration, the Dems would clearly emerge with a larger majority in the Senate than they could possibly imagine with the present gerrymandered map.
“My district runs from Rockaway up to Queens College – give me a break,” Malcolm punctuated the map-carving done by the Republican GOP to retain two Queens seats in an overwhelming Democratic County.
“Once you change the senate, it’s a different set of legs you are standing on,” Malcolm explained. He beleives reapportionment will ultimately be negotiated – “I don’t think it goes to the courts.”
“Joe Bruno is scared for his life; he is threatening everybody – Court Officers Association, contractors, real estate board,” the Senate Minority Leaders says of the man he wants to replace. “The team I’m building is going to be able to run Time Warner. We are very close to the governor.”
In response to my reference to the Governor’s new “steamroller” nickname, Malcolm said “I wish he was more of a steamroller – I wish I could be a baby steamroller – I think he has done a great job under a difficult situation – a lot of the problem is those two houses that we have.”
He doesn’t believe that we’re “at the point where they want to close Aqueduct.” He would encourage the Governor not to do so, even though he acknowledges that it would be a tremendous area for development.”
He requires members of the Senate minority to have continuing education classes and in addition to have specific issues they know “cold” and conduct hearings throughout the state. If they miss their ranking committee member meetings, they lose their position. “People are counting on them,” Malcolm explained, and they also must be prepared to govern effectively when we take the majority.
His three top issues: affordable housing, environmental cleaning, and economic development.
Some quick thoughts:
“I think its horrendous that police officers are getting $25,000.”
“You want to move this city beyond where it is, you make it safer.”
“We’re doing worse education-wise – in terms of where the kids are. That’s why there are charter schools – we’re not going to wait for them.”
“I would love to have a WalMart.”
Role models: “Reverend Flake and Bill Clinton, in that order.”
Next mayor: “That’s a good question. I’d like to see Bill Thompson.”
His future: “Eight years from now I will doing stuff in China and India. There are a lot of people out there to run for mayor – more than enough.”