By Roscoe Conkling
Like everywhere else in America, Republicans are in retreat in New York State. The once mighty Party of Thomas E. Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller and Warren Anderson struggles to hang on to their last vestige of power in the New York State Senate. If you have never been to Albany to actually experience the dysfunction of New York State government, you might think its current doings are rather Kafkaesque, or an Alice in Wonderland story, where everything is backward and nothing is rationale. And you'd be right. On November 5th, the Democrats won 32 seats in the state Senate, and the Republicans took 30. Theoretically, the Democrats now have the numbers necessary to end the Republican's nearly 70-year domination of the Senate. In reality, they can't even muster enough votes to elect a majority leader in January. At least today. That's because immediately following the Democrats' victory, four senators - Pedro Espada, Ruben Diaz, Carl Kruger, and Hiram Monserrate - broke away from the Democratic conference and refused to commit to Malcolm Smith's leadership. The Gang of Four became the Gang of Three when Hiram Monserrate announced that he could not see himself voting for a non-democrat as majority leader. These three holdouts have kept the Democrats embroiled in intense negotiations. Clearly, the Gang of Three wants a seat at the big table. All of them conducted a very public courtship with the current Majority Leader, Dean Skelos, who succeeded the inestimable Joe Bruno after he quit his 13-year post as the Senate's iron-fisted Majority Leader. Skelos was an operative and loyalist of legendary Nassau County GOP Leader Joe Margiotta, but he is no Joe Bruno. Skelos, who looks like a Greek Fuller Brush man, funneled money to Espada's election and has offered to change Senate rules to shift control of millions of dollars to the Senate Finance Committee, which he would let the Gang of Three dominate, in return for their votes to maintain a Republican majority and the heavy staff budgets and fund-raising leverage that includes. Now Gang of Three conspirator Ruben Diaz has effectively blocked any possibility of legalization of gay marriage in New York, despite the fact that Senate Democrats and the Governor took hundreds of thousands of dollars from gay and lesbian groups in return for their pledge to do just that. Senator Diaz refuses to vote for any Democratic Majority Leader (Smith) who will let a gay marriage bill reach the floor of the Senate. Liberal and Democratic lobbyists are furious. To add to that insult, Joe Mesi's surprising loss in Western New York stung Democrats. Joe Mesi was favored to win the Senate seat that Mary Lou Rath vacated, but his lead dropped precipitously after he endorsed same-sex marriage in return for $150,000 in campaign funds from advocates. Ironically, had Mesi won, the Gang of Three would only tie the score, rather than tip the entire balance of power. Now the New York Post's Fred Dicker reports that Senator Carl Kruger from Brooklyn is following Monserrate out the door and that the tough-talking Kruger has told Governor Paterson that he "Hates" Skelos and won't help him keep the Majority Leader's post. So, the Gang of Three may soon be the Gang of Two. As to whether there is a coup attempt staged by Senators Jeff Klein, Eric Schneiderman, and Tom Duane who could team with Kruger, Diaz and Monserrate to replace Smith remains to be seen but treachery abounds in the Democratic Caucus where Paterson took Minority Leader Marty Connor out in just such a coup. Even in the Minority Skelos is not safe as Senators Tom Libous and George Maziars have both been approached by colleagues to run against the hapless Senator from Nassau. Add to this the fact that Senator's pensions are calculated based on their last year of earning. Since Senators in the Majority are paid more than Senators in the Minority because of their committee chairmanships, some of the Republican old-bulls like Dale Volker, Hugh Farley and Owen Johnson could pack it in once it becomes clear that the Democrats will take the Majority. The shift in Bronx County Democratic leadership also puts new pressure on Ruben Diaz to get in line although it is difficult to see how Diaz backs-off his pledge not to support a pro-gay marriage. Diaz is a Pentecostal Minister and Pastor of his Church. Meanwhile, Skelos, who moved to the Majority Leader's office only after agreeing to keep Bruno's entire Senate Majority staff, has continued to take his political cues from John McArdle, a reclusive and rodent-like man who served as Bruno's Press Secretary but demanded the title of Communications Director. For reasons no one can understand, Secretary of the Senate Steve Boggess, widely respected in the GOP as the strategist who kept the Senate in Republican hands two years ago, seems to be listening to. Despised by most senior Republican Senators for his imperious manner and opposition to any legislative or public relations idea that is not his, "the Weasel," as one Western New York Senator has called McArdle , has engineered Skelos' sorry attempt to buy off enough Democrats to keep McArdle in his staff job. McArdle has even suggested making Espada the Majority Leader if that is what it takes to make a deal, although that trial balloon quickly deflated. Meanwhile McArdle leaked a ridiculous story to Dicker that claimed Paterson had reached out to longtime Secretary of the Senate Steve Boggess to broker a deal for a new Majority Leader with the Gang of Three. Dicker's story in the Post pointedly said that Boggess was leaving the Senate to become a lobbyist, thus spinning that Paterson is not necessarily for Smith becoming Majority Leader and signaling to special interests that "lobbyist" Steve Boggess will have good relations with Governor Paterson. The backdrop of this little drama has Governor David Paterson, a liberal Democrat from Harlem, arguing for deep spending cuts of at least $6 billion while Skelos and Senate Republicans refuse to consider any budget cut that would gouge a liberal special interest such as the powerful hospital workers' union 1199. With the State's finances in shambles, Skelos is unwilling to finally put the breaks on the wasteful spending and make immediate cuts. His "deals" with the Health Care Workers Union, the Trial Bar and the real estate interests are still seen as the keys to power - but power to achieve what? Even when Republicans do the right thing- like the property tax cap vote- they never challenge Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in any concerted way. Governor Paterson supported a property tax cap and the Republican Senate passed such a bill, yet little mention of it was made in the fall campaign for fear of offending Speaker Silver, who opposes the tax cap. The Senate GOP Leadership favors blurring the differences between Republicans and Democrats on the theory that you can count on Republicans to vote Republican regardless of your policies and you can buy enough Democrats with tax-dollars to win if your policies are liberal enough. Plus each GOP member brags about the pork he has brought home, as if they were Democrats. Meanwhile, Majority Leader-elect Malcolm Smith has approaches next year with a Zen-like confidence as the dominos maybe slowly falling his way. Delaying legalization of gay marriage to 'focus on the economy' won't fool the left for long. Rockefeller Drug law reform advocates won't be put off either. Senate Democrats look like they don't know how to do anything but retreat. If Smith does prevail and become Majority Leader as now seems possible, he will be a man in the cross-fire. In New York State no man's life, liberty or property are safe if the legislature is in session.
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Roscoe Conkling is the pseudonym for a well dressed Republican political consultant and analyst who prefers to remain anonymous.