Senate for Sale

GOP Uses Public Pots of Gold to Entice Converts

Every once in a while something new actually happens in New York politics. The recent Republican conversions of two former Democrats now running for the state Senate—Bronx incumbent Pedro Espada and Rochester assemblyman Joe Robach-were just such watershed events.

It isn't the first time a Democrat has reaped the benefits that come with joining the Republican majority in the Senate-Syracuse senator Nancy Larraine Hoffmann did it in 1998. But it is the first time that GOP leaders are, as Manhattan state senator Eric Schneiderman put it, "trolling for any possible collaborators, always open for business"—in pursuit, for example, of Brooklyn incumbent Carl Kruger and Noach Dear, the former councilman now running for a new senate seat. Exploiting the opportunities reapportionment presents, senate GOP leader Joe Bruno and Governor George Pataki are knee-deep in the tawdry politics of publicly subsidized betrayal.

With 2 million more Democrats in New York than Republicans—a margin that has widened by 600,000 since 1994—Pataki and Bruno have watched the Democratic margin in the assembly reach 97 to 52, the Nassau County GOP collapse, and every statewide office but governor fall to the Democrats. In their fight against time, the two have ostensibly decided that the only way to maintain the party's six-vote senate majority is to buy Democrats, a purchase the irrepressible Espada made all too obvious by almost immediately wiring $745,000 in state grants to an organization that pays him $200,000 a year.

When the Times' Richard Pérez-Peña exposed the Espada acquisition, Bruno staged an election-year show of canceling the grants, though Espada still gets $2 million a year from what's called a "member-item" pork barrel, compared to the $120,000 pittance he got on the Democratic side of the aisle. Asked in a June legal proceeding why he switched to the GOP, the first reason Espada cited was that "members in the minority conference now have less by way of member items," claiming that the always paltry Democratic allocation had been cut "by half" from a onetime $300,000 per member.

After appearing with Bruno at a February press conference and saying that "today, I affirm and declare . . . political emancipation," announcing that as of that day he would "enroll as a member of the Republican Party," the legislator with a 25-to-1 Democratic registration in his district changed his mind. Though he resigned from the Democratic conference, sat on the Republican side of the house, was listed with an R in the senate phone directory, was celebrated on the GOP National Committee Web site, and was named by Bruno to chair a subcommittee, Espada is trying to run for re-election as a Democrat.

Represented by at least three senate lawyers, he's fought the Democratic Party's effort to disqualify him all the way up to the Court of Appeals. He even won a 3-to-2 decision in the Manhattan Appellate Division, supported by two upstate Republicans installed there by Pataki and one Democrat, David Friedman, whose recent elevation was the result of a deal between the governor and another Pataki-backer in Democratic guise, Assemblyman Dov Hikind.

Incredibly, Bruno's attorneys argued last Wednesday that the party-switching press conference was actually a meeting of the Republican majority attended by reporters, protected by the speech and debate clause of the state constitution. While this clause immunizes legislators from any legal challenge to "acts that are integral parts of the legislative process," court rulings have expressly excluded "press releases" from its protection, and Espada went on to say much the same thing in radio and print interviews. The Court of Appeals reversed Pataki's majority unanimously on Friday, ruling that the party can remove Espada if it limits a second review to his press comments.

In Rochester, the senate redrew the lines of Democrat Richard Dollinger's district, adding turf favorable to Robach, whose assembly district was punitively redrawn by Democrat Speaker Shelly Silver because Robach supported a 2000 challenge to Silver's leadership. Robach insists that the main reason he decided to take the Republican line against 10-year incumbent Dollinger was Silver's gerrymander, but concedes that the new senate district Bruno designed includes enticing strongholds of his.

Robach, like Espada, is still a registered Democrat, but he told the Voice that he will change parties if elected. Though part of a large and legendary Democratic family in Rochester politics, Robach said he "will switch because I want to be in the majority to get something done," a logical conclusion that has so far eluded the have-cake-and-eat-it-too Espada. Dollinger quit the race in July, leaving the Dems with no time to find a potent alternative, and told the Voice that Robach decided to "take the Republicans' mega-millions, tapping into the Discover Card of New York politics."

Dollinger says that Robach was dangling member-item grants in the face of community groups identified with him while he was still in the race. "The way Republicans buy favor with voters is through member-items" and other discretionary pots of gold, says Dollinger, which he estimates at up to $5 million a year for the other Rochester senator, an incumbent Republican. "It's not a policy party; it's a pork party. When the fire department gets its new pumper, they convince people that they can't live without their Republican senator." Robach, who says he got $125,000 a year in member-items as an assemblyman, concedes he's discussed this new funding with groups but says he's "made no commitments."

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