Senate Coup Plotters' Hidden Agenda

Tabloids call it a circus, but the lobbyists' goal is to squelch reforms

The tabloid version of the Great Senate Stalemate of 2009 goes something like this: Those bozos in the State Senate—who can't be trusted even on a good day to get their lunch orders straight—brought the people's business to a screeching halt over a petty internal dispute about who got to wield the gavel at meetings.

There is just enough of a patina of truth to this comic-book description of the Albany shutdown to convince a lot of otherwise sensible citizens to lather up in rage. After all, this is the same corps of elected officials that has managed to incur a higher rate of criminal indictment than many of New York's toughest neighborhoods. Who were these dolts? How dare they pose as leaders? Throw them all the hell out.

Naturally, the biggest promoter of this tale is the New York Post, which quickly dubbed the standoff a circus and then gleefully provided a clown to wander the capitol halls. The Daily News also got into the act, firing up its readers with its "Don't Pay the Bums" campaign.

In these accounts, the fact that there are hugely important stakes for everyday New Yorkers in the outcome of the Senate fight is barely mentioned. Nor is the embarrassing truth that what transpired in Albany in the past month is the local version of a banana republic coup. In this case, the conspiring generals were lobbyists and one very power-hungry billionaire, Tom Golisano. Their goal was no different from that of those democracy-fearing Iranian mullahs: to overturn the results of a popular election.

The threat to power here was the slim Democratic majority that won control of the Senate last fall for the first time in more than 40 years. Consider the timeline: The plotters launched their coup on June 8, the day before the Senate's housing committee was due to consider legislation—given a good chance of passage—that would curb rent hikes on hundreds of thousands of city apartments. Worse, it was even possible that the new majority might vote to give control over New York City housing policies to the city itself. Imagine that? Home rule! For the real estate and landlord lobby, which had long held full sway in the Senate, this was an impossible state of affairs. A pair of renegade Democrats were recruited at a still undisclosed price. The rebels stepped across the aisle to vote the Republicans back into power, thus ensuring that there would be no further incursions into the business of real estate profit or any other sacred Albany cows.

Despite its often clumsy and muddled performance during its short-lived reign, the Senate's new Democratic majority became a target of fear and loathing for the state's traditional powerbrokers. That's because on the occasions that they did get their act together, the Democrats showed what a progressive coalition might achieve.

One of those moments came a few weeks before the hijacking, when they voted to reverse course on one of the most repugnant episodes in legislative history, the Rockefeller drug laws. These mandatory and draconian prison sentences for even first-time, nonviolent drug offenders had long been widely viewed as costly and ineffective. Passed in 1973, they were a means for then-governor Nelson Rockefeller to add some law-and-order luster to his presidential dreams. Rockefeller never got to be president, but tens of thousands of New Yorkers paid the price for his ambitions, spending the best years of their lives behind the grim walls of places like Dannemora and Bedford Hills.

Even as a groundswell of opposition grew, opponents hit a brick wall in the form of the Republican-controlled state Senate. Leaders there saw little benefit in passing legislation that mainly served urban Democrats. They offered their standard retort to such change: Why bother?

That veto power ended abruptly this year when Democrats took power. The legislation's chief sponsor in the Senate was Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat representing upper Manhattan and the Bronx, who had long championed the reforms. This year, he became the new chair of the Codes Committee with jurisdiction over criminal justice issues. With the backing of majority leader Malcolm Smith, ending the onerous laws became the first order of business. Senate Republicans predictably voted as a bloc against the changes. Democrats, exercising their narrow majority, pushed them through, along with new funding for addiction treatment.

Democrats, led by Liz Krueger of Manhattan, had also long sought a hike in the basic welfare grant, which had remained at the same level for almost 20 years. Republicans, in turn, had long blocked it, applying their usual logic: Who benefits? Not us. After Governor David Paterson sought the increase in the budget, the new Senate voted for the raise. Republicans again voted in solid opposition.

Other changes won by the new majority were small, but telling. Brooklyn State Senator Velmanette Montgomery became the new chair of the Social Services Committee. She had tried for eight years to win passage of a measure barring prison officials from shackling pregnant female prisoners when they are in labor. "The practice is barbaric and unconscionable," said the even-tempered Montgomery. The bill had repeatedly passed in the Assembly, where it was sponsored by Nick Perry, a Democrat from East Flatbush. "It kept dying in committee in the Senate," Perry said after the bill's passage. "I just couldn't understand it. The excuses I got made no sense."

Democratic control of Senate committees also brought the power to shine a spotlight in places Republicans had preferred to leave dark. On May 29, 10 days before the coup shut everything down, Harlem Senator Bill Perkins, new chairman of a committee overseeing state authorities, held the Senate's first public hearing on the massive $4 billion Atlantic Yards project.

The Forest City Ratner deal was made possible by an official sleight of hand that allowed it to skirt city land use regulations. Under Republican control, the Senate asked no questions. Even at the hearing, they still offered protection. Brooklyn's lone GOP senator, Marty Golden, burst into the hearings late and, backed by cheers from building trades workers, proceeded to mock Perkins and Montgomery, in whose district the project sits, for "holding the project hostage."

Before the coup squelched their chances, there was strong hope for several valuable measures. At the top of the list was long-stalled state campaign finance reform. A bill introduced in the Senate by Schneiderman, and by Jim Brennan of Brooklyn in the Assembly, proposed to cut the maximum allowable donation to statewide office seekers from $56,000 to $7,500; Senate and Assembly contributions would be cut to a third of their current levels. Diane Savino, a Democrat from Staten Island and Brooklyn, was hopeful as well of winning passage of a bill—pending for five years—to give domestic workers some rudimentary on-the-job protections, such as time-and-a-half pay for work over 40 hours, and a day off for every seven days worked.

The coup also shut down efforts by Schneiderman to win passage of legislation that would let modern technology help cops fight gun crimes. His bill would mandate that guns sold in New York include a new microstamping process that imprints a serial number on every bullet fired. This lets police trace bullets used in crimes even if the gun itself can't be found. The NRA opposes the move, and at the gun lobby's behest, Golden, an ex-cop, introduced his own bill seeking to bury the measure with "further study."

Thanks to last month's intervention by Albany's powerbrokers, the NRA need fret no longer. And with the tabloids running interference, the true victims of the Senate coup will never know what hit them.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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