Midway through the second week of Albany paralysis, as bills to pay for schools and hospitals drifted on a lifeless legislative sea, a spokesman for the moneyed classes cackled in delight. “Chaos, from our perspective,” gloated Joseph Strasburg, who runs the city’s largest landlords’ club, “is not such a bad thing.”
No Somalian pirate could have said it more honestly, and Strasburg’s meaning, as he merrily hoisted his own Jolly Roger, was plain: The Senate, newly under Democratic control, was poised to pass bills to help tenants burdened by high rents. Rather than risk having a duly elected body of legislators approve laws that could harm his clients’ economic interests, it was far better to spur bedlam and confusion.
Strasburg showed neither fear nor shame at admitting his role in the hijacking. He boasted to The New York Times that he had brought Bronx Democratic Senate defector Pedro Espada Jr., whose wildman antics forced the Senate to shut down this month, together with Republican leaders in an ultimately successful effort to buy his allegiance.
The price was making Espada president pro tem of the Senate, a post that makes him next up should the governor need replacing. This, the pirates all agreed, was quite doable. Strasburg also put Espada’s lawyer, another Bronx mercenary named Stanley Schlein, on his payroll as a $4,000-per-month lobbyist. Strasburg’s partner in managed mayhem, Steve Spinola of the Real Estate Board of New York, did the same.
Another big moneyman, hockey and office services mogul Tom Golisano, strutted through the capitol’s halls bragging of his own role in sparking this turmoil. How grand, boasted these agents of anarchy. This body dared to tax the rich? Dared to curb rent hikes? We’ll shut it down. Long live chaos!
Inside the governor’s mansion, David Paterson sat and watched all of this unfold. If he was outraged by what he saw and heard, he never let it show. If he had a clear plan to straighten things out, he kept it to himself.
Here, everyone had believed that this veteran Harlem pol—who visibly winces when dubbed the accidental governor—had only been waiting for his moment to shine, to let New Yorkers know that a strong, capable leader was at the helm. Apparently not. The moment arrived two weeks ago, when the pirates first seized control of a legislative chamber. Paterson froze.
The governor said nothing publicly until two days after the June 8 coup. “I’m not going to interfere,” he said then. A day later, as warring factions battled over possession of keys to the Senate chambers and a clown dispatched by the New York Post roved the capital, he became annoyed. “Dysfunction and chaos have wasted an entire week,” he said in a written statement.
In between, there was an embarrassing telephone conversation between Espada and Paterson. Espada claimed later that the governor had congratulated him on his election as Senate president. Paterson denied it. Espada, who once recorded every meeting he had with politicians, told reporter Gerson Borrero he had four witnesses. The match ended there.
New Yorkers waited in vain last week for the governor to articulate some sense of fury at this ongoing disgrace. A top real estate industry figure publicly salutes “chaos,” and the governor isn’t offended? A fringe political player like Espada, who doesn’t even file his required campaign statements or bother to open a home office in his district, is named second in line to the governor and has a pleasant chat with him on the phone? An entire chamber of the legislature stays closed for two weeks as guarantees of financial support by Golisano and others are openly promised, and he’s not infuriated?
What New Yorkers needed and deserved was the kind of righteous rage offered by Bill Clinton when Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress tried to shut down the government in 1995. Back then, Clinton called the bluff, pointing out that the extortion was part of an “explicit strategy” articulated by Republicans earlier that year to get what they wanted. It’s the exact same game plan now embraced by New York’s Senate Republicans, enabled by a handful of power brokers protecting their interests.
There were plenty of smart suggestions last week as to what a strong governor might have done—and still could—if he were only willing to muster the political will.
The first step, as soon as the insurrection was launched, would have been to read the riot act to the chief offenders: Espada and his then co-conspirator, Queens senator Hiram Monserrate. Paterson needn’t have done it himself. His new top aide, Larry Schwartz, who earned a tough-guy reputation in the Westchester legislature for getting things done, would make a fine designated hitter. The message would have been simple: Pull back now, or face the full powers of the state executive arrayed against you.
In the case of Monserrate, who later repented and rejoined the Democrats, this would have been a quiet reminder about his tenuous political future. Even if he survives his criminal assault trial, he’d face an uphill battle if the governor decided to have the state’s Democratic Party remind voters of his disloyalty.
Espada, whose rebellion continues unabated, has several soft spots despite his wise-guy swagger. The biggest is his Soundview Healthcare Center, which pays him $380,000 a year and provides his political base in funding and patronage jobs. As an administrator, Espada needs only the slightest reminder of how important state cooperation is to the smooth functioning of that empire. He knows that the state is obligated to investigate every outstanding complaint, however minor, and to audit every invoice, no matter how small the amount. He understands as well that state health inspectors have a job to do, and they would be remiss if they didn’t give his half-dozen centers the closest of scrutiny.
Another soft spot is his residence. Enforcement of state residency rules has long been so lax that rogues like Espada—who brazenly keeps his home in a Westchester suburb, miles from his Bronx district—have openly flouted them. A message from the governor that he was going to seek new measures to enforce those laws would resonate deeply with the senator.
Late last week, Paterson was finally mulling another option that was always on the table, but which he resisted as though it would lead to nuclear winter: He told Democratic leaders he would call a special session of the legislature. Under this proviso, the governor can order the legislature to convene and sets the agenda. It can include as many or as few pieces of legislation as he feels require consideration. During the week that the Senate was shut down, the Assembly passed some 200 measures. Among them were sales tax laws that several upstate counties are dependent upon for basic funding, measures that extend much of the control that Mayor Bloomberg is seeking over city schools, even campaign finance reforms.
Albany veterans recall years ago, when a governor dispatched state troopers to literally pull legislators over on the New York State Thruway and herd them back into such an extraordinary session. Paterson, loath as he seems to use it, has that power, and more. “He can lock the door once they’re inside and make them stay there,” said one former pol. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to agree on who’s going to hold the gavel. But at least it puts them together in the room.” And at least New York’s accidental governor will have done something.