Homophobe Ruben Diaz, l., gives gavel to Pedro Espada. Photos by John DeSio.
Fresh from their behind-closed-doors victory over Malcolm Smith and the new Democratic majority in the State Senate, the so-called “Gang of Three” held what amounted to a victory party last night in the concert hall of Lehman College, where a crowd of about 400 gathered to celebrate the swearing in of new State Senator Pedro Espada Jr.
“You’ve energized me in so many different ways,” said Espada to the masses gathered to celebrate his return to Albany, where he had served in the State Senate (in a different Bronx district) until 2002.
The event proved that time heals all wounds. Just weeks ago, Espada lashed out at Smith for backing out of a deal he’d made with his “Gang of Three” state senate dissidents, and calling Smith a “scoundrel” and “liar” and for Democrats to oust Smith as leader and replace him with someone up to the job.
On Thursday the crowd saw a video of Smith saying how proud he was of Espada and calling him “mi hermano.”
Espada, well known for non-profit abuse and failing to pay his campaign bills, conspired over the past few months with fellow Bronxite and former enemy Rev. Ruben Diaz (who defeated him in 2002) and Brooklyn’s Carl Kruger to hold up the Democratic takeover of the State Senate by threatening to caucus with the Republicans. Finally he and they backed off, and received perks — Espada’s reportedly including chairmanship of the senate’s housing construction and community development committee and vice presidency of the senate for urban policy.
While Diaz worked to keep gay marriage off the agenda, Espada and Kruger sought raw power. Everyone got what they wanted — so why not celebrate? A gospel choir sang, a few people danced in the aisles, and Diaz and Kruger jointly presented their new ally Espada with an oversized novelty gavel. Espada returned the favor, offering his new “amigos” oversized sombreros. He was sworn in with his family at his side.
Just a few years ago, Espada and Diaz squared off in one of the nastiest races ever, capped by an Espada campaign commercial accusing Diaz of having been a drug dealer. But last night they embraced in a hug.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways!” said Diaz when asked about his past animosity with Espada. One individual standing nearby counted off the perks that Espada and Kruger were given for supporting Smith, and declared that Diaz “got nothing.” Diaz — whom, it has been reported, bargained to keep a vote on same-sex marriage off the State Senate floor till at least the next election cycle — replied, “I got what I wanted.”
But the star of the night was Espada. Attendees were given tickets to the event, as though they were entering a World Series game. To ensure a solid crowd, some of Espada’s new constituents were bused to the event from other parts of the district. He was sworn in bilingually. And a 20-minute video of his career was screened, to the great enthusiasm of the crowd.
When he finally took the podium, the standing ovation was inevitable. Here was the first address of the most colorful politico in The Bronx, if not the state. What sort of fiery oratory would he deliver?
How about some well-worn boilerplate? For a guy with a (well-deserved) reputation of bringing crowds to their feet with his amped-up rhetoric, Espada failed to deliver on Thursday. He stressed his new role as Bronx economic guru, and vowed to work to end poverty in his borough. He called for more affordable housing, affordable college tuition, and for government to “invest in children.”
The only juice came from Kruger, who at least discussed the gang’s hardball with Smith, going so far as to present their actions, which have been widely criticized as a naked power grab, as acts of “reform.”
“At the end of the day we knew one thing,” said Kruger. “If we stood tall and we stood together, and we stood firm in our vision with tenacity and commitment to purpose, that ultimately we would win. We would bring reform and change. We would get people to believe that they system could truly work for them if they put their hearts and their minds behind it.”
Espada thanked those in attendance for their continued support. “I am so very proud of you, I owe you so very much,” he said. “And I will take your prayers, and I will take this designation as senator and everything that has come with it everywhere I go.”
At the end of his speech Espada looked to the sky; some Bronx political observers looked for the exits. For weeks, much of the backroom chatter in the borough has focused on Espada’s coming Albany tenure and the problems he would cause for other elected officials. “This is so fucking bad,” said one well-connected Bronx insider as he left the event, clearly not thrilled with Espada’s multiple new titles. “They’ve given a ton of power to a guy who can’t be trusted.”