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Also fully on board is Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith of Queens, who could become the Third Man in the Room with Governor David Paterson and Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver if the Democrats succeed in taking control of the senate this fall. Gonzalez helped elect Smith to his position a couple of years ago. The Queens pol repaid the favor, putting Gonzalez's son and several other aides on the senate payroll.
But even without that personal allegiance, there's a strong political rationale for the senate Dems. When last in the senate, Espada picked up his chair and went and sat with the Republicans. His reward from then–GOP majority leader Joe Bruno was some $745,000 in member-item grants he was allowed to dole out to recipients of his choice. (Espada found the perfect home for the money: his own Soundview health-care centers. He was later forced to withdraw the gifts after the Times reported them.)
This year, Smith and the senate Democrats aren't taking any chances, pledging strong support to Gonzalez. This doesn't exactly help bolster the reform image the Democrats are trying to shape as they prepare to battle the GOP in several crucial districts upstate and in Queens, but they've got a ready explanation: "Senator Gonzalez has been accused, but he hasn't had his day in court," says Doug Forand, the political consultant representing the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. "We do not consider Pedro Espada to be a good Democrat," he adds. "He was in Albany once before elected by the voters, and he turned his back and sat with the other side."
Funny thing is, you'd be hard-pressed to hang a "True Blue Democrat" sign on Gonzalez, either. Since serving in the legislature he has endorsed many top Republicans, including Al D'Amato, Rudy Giuliani, and George Pataki.
All this might be dismissed as just another sideshow in the ever-fractious world of Bronx politics, but unfortunately there's a lot at stake. "The looming transfer of power in the state senate from Republicans to Democrats is going to be the biggest political shift in this state in 100 years," says one Democratic warrior. "And once we're in power, we're never going back. But how's that power going to be used? That's the question."