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Say this for the scandal surrounding Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich: It’s simple and right to the point. What exactly is not to get about a top politician demanding a lot of money or a nice, new, high-paid job in exchange for an appointment to the United States Senate? And those who foul up these negotiations? Motherfuckers. This is language America understands.
On the other hand, the scandal of how New York’s Democrats are screwing up their newly won victory in the New York State Senate is virtually impenetrable. Even those who understand what is going on are so miserable about how it is playing out that they can only mutter in off-English when asked for explanations. Much of the murkiness about the talks over leadership posts in the next senate is deliberate, of course. This is because if the public really understood how badly things have gone off track they would be giving state senators the same kind of loathsome looks that Blagojevich is trying to avoid by staying holed up in his home in Chicago.
Malcolm Smith, the senator from Queens who hopes to control the senate come January, has pledged a slew of changes once his party takes over. He promises campaign finance reforms, a fair-share tax code, environmental incentives, and pro-tenant laws. He also pledges new “transparency” in state affairs. In the meantime, he speaks in language understood about as well as Farsi by most of us while he negotiates a deal to take power.
It falls to us, therefore, to try and disinfect this morass with a little helpful sunlight. For starters, it is useful to know a little bit about the so-called “Gang of Three”—the trio of Democratic senators who have been tying Smith and the Democrats up in knots by insisting that their demands be met before they agree to give their own party its 32-seat majority.
Rubén Diaz Sr., 65, a Pentecostal pastor from the Bronx, was elected to the senate in 2002 to represent one of the poorest districts in the city. Most of his energy goes toward combating the scourge of homosexuality. In 1997, Diaz insisted that gays be barred from entering the city to participate in a series of sporting events because they were likely to spread AIDS.
Last year, the FBI subpoenaed election records of Diaz and his son, Assemblyman Rubén Diaz Jr. The Daily News reported that the bureau also took records from a nonprofit group founded by Diaz that provides home-care attendants to the elderly under a $26 million city contract. The group, Christian Community in Action, includes three of Diaz’s staff members on its board. Diaz and his son have helped steer $1.5 million in state grants its way. Diaz said gays may be to blame for the inquiry. “I have tons of enemies out there trying to get me,” he told the Observer‘s Azi Paybarah at the time. “You know, I’ve been outspoken on certain issues, like gay marriage, abortion. All those things. I might create enemies.”
Diaz has insisted that his goal in the leadership fight is to block any gay-marriage bill. But he is no political slouch. As part of the pact, Diaz demanded chairmanship of the Committee on Aging, which oversees programs for the elderly. A proposed memo of agreement that was drafted by the Gang of Three’s attorneys, and published last week by the Times, calls for Diaz to “be provided with all the resources currently available to the Chair of that Committee.”
You might expect that, given the federal probe, senate officials would have responded to this demand by bolting from the room in panic. Instead, in a deal that the Illinois governor would appreciate, Smith’s team initially went along, agreeing that Diaz would get his committee and that gay marriage would not be considered for the time being. The matrimonial delay quickly prompted huge protests from other Democrats, complaints that helped persuade Smith to kill the entire agreement. The decision to give Diaz control over the state’s senior-citizen programs brought barely a peep.
This may be because Democrats were already in shock that Smith had offered even more power to another Bronx dissident known to push the envelope in his business affairs. Pedro Espada Jr., 54, is a peppery ex-boxer who has been giving the Bronx Democratic organization conniptions for years. In 1998, while facing charges of steering money from a large health clinic he runs into his political campaigns, Espada wore his own secret listening device to meetings with top Democratic officials. One meeting caught then party boss Roberto Ramirez suggesting that Espada’s legal troubles would go away if he withdrew from politics. “If you sit out, there’s peace in the valley,” Ramirez was heard saying.
Espada beat that case at trial. But a few years later, three of his top aides pleaded guilty to state charges of having diverted $30,000 in clinic funds into his campaigns, while another went to prison for perjury. The money had been intended to help poor families and patients suffering from AIDS.
In an earlier stint in the senate, Espada cut a deal to vote with former Republican majority leader Joe Bruno. In exchange, he was allotted $2 million in grant money to dispense, $745,000 of which he promptly routed to his own health clinics. The grants were only pulled back after the Times exposed them. There are also record-keeping concerns: Espada failed to make any of the required campaign filings this year. He blames a young campaign treasurer. “Every single expenditure is known to the Board of Elections,” he says. The board still fined him $60,000.
Espada’s reward for this past performance, according to the memo, was to get the post of senate majority leader with “sufficient staff and resources to carry out his duties.” He also was handed the number two slot on the rules committee, which approves all legislation.
Carl Kruger, a wily and wealthy senator from south Brooklyn, cut the best deal of all. Kruger, 58, won election to the senate in 1994 with the support of Tony Genovesi, the late assemblyman and Brooklyn powerbroker who was an eloquent foe of capital punishment. Upon his election, Kruger immediately voted for the death penalty, prompting his mentor to accuse him of betrayal.
But that was classic Kruger, always seizing the opportunity. A former community-board chairman, he beat his own indictment in 1980 on charges of extorting payoffs from local builders. In the senate, he quickly made accommodation with the GOP. Former Brooklyn Democratic senator Seymour Lachman reported in his book Three Men in A Room that Democrat Kruger stunned fellow Dems by campaigning “almost day and night” to help Republican Martin Golden win election. Lachman said Republicans made no bones about their gratitude: Dean Skelos—then in charge of redistricting and now the senate’s Republican leader—admitted that his orders were to carve out “a permanently safe seat” for Kruger.
Before the deal was upended, Kruger was slated to become chair of the all-powerful Finance Committee, the panel that not only screens and approves the state budget, but also every nomination. As one legislator put it last week: “If you want to make state government your own personal bank, there is no more powerful position.”
Now that is the kind of universal language understood by everyone from Albany to Chicago. We can only hope that a wiretap somewhere has also picked up these talks in their full flavor.