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.”
In Brooklyn, Bruno again used both reapportionment and member-items to dramatically improve his chances of gaining seats. Initially creating a district for Dear, who ran on the Republican line for Congress in 2000 while supporting U.S. Senate candidate Rick Lazio and the Bush-Cheney ticket, Bruno unnerved Kruger, who was losing key parts of his district to Dear. In the end, Kruger, who endorsed Rudy Giuliani two years ago, got the safe district he wanted, where he is on the Democratic and Republican lines. Dear is running in a new black district against two blacks, posing as a Democrat.
Not only did Kruger become vice chair of Democrats for Pataki, he has remained nominally neutral in the battle for the Bay Ridge senate seat between GOP councilman Marty Golden and incumbent Democratic senator Vincent Gentile. Kruger has made no formal endorsement, but he has done campaign appearances with Golden and none with Gentile. Kruger’s refusal to back Gentile is crucial because large chunks of his old district—where he is very popular—are now in Gentile’s.
Kruger told the Voice that his member-item budget has increased as a result of his new alliance with the Republicans, but refused to say how much. He would not answer questions about the possibility of changing his party alignment other than to say “my name is not Pedro Espada; call me Ed Koch,” another frequent Republican backer who’s still a registered Democrat. Senate Democratic leader Marty Connor is suing to overturn the redistricting lines Bruno and Pataki approved, calling them an assault on the census and the city, with “the population of upstate districts averaging 5 percent less than the statewide mean while the population of city districts hit 5 percent more.” He is so disturbed by the blatant use of member-items to seduce Democrats that he scolded Republican leaders in a Voice interview. “Using public funds for political leverage is immoral and possibly illegal,” he said. “It epitomizes everything that’s wrong with the way the state senate functions.”
Connor insists that Bruno can only get away with these maneuvers so long as there is a Republican governor. “Fred Ohrenstein was the Democratic leader in the senate for 20 years and no member switched,” argued Connor, pointing out that there was a Democratic governor throughout the same period. Just as Pataki is steering more funding into Kruger’s district though he remains a Democrat, a Democratic governor would have had the financial discretion to counter Bruno’s tantalizing offers. Instead, Connor’s only ostensible Albany ally, Silver, pushed Robach to desert and seems more interested in topping 100 assembly seats than in supplying electable Democrats to his senate colleagues.