Monday, October 27, 2008

Sense in the State Senate

As the battle to control the state senate winds down to next week's election, observers are beginning to envision the possibility of a statistical dead heat-a 31-31 tie that will throw the leadership fight into a real donnybrook. As Newsday reported yesterday:

"It's being called "the nightmare scenario": a State Senate unable to work because Democrats and Republicans win an equal number of seats in the Nov. 4 elections.Such a tie hasn't occurred before in modern New York history but is looking more likely because there are only a few close races out of 62. And if the legislature's upper chamber were evenly split, there's no lieutenant governor to cast the deciding vote in the leadership election in January.The prospect of a stalemated Senate worries officials here because of the financial crisis. Instead of closing this year's budget deficit of $2 billion, senators could be fighting for control. "It throws the whole Senate into real confusion," said Stanley B. Klein, a political scientist on the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University. "Without a leader, it's every man and woman for themselves and that would be absolute chaos."

Of course, this scenario depends on the absolute political fealty of all involved-particularly on the Democratic side where Minority Leader Smith appears to be on shaky grounds. From where we sit, at least four Dem senators are potential free agents-Carl Kruger, Pedro Espada, Hiram Monseratte and Ruben Diaz; let's call them Kruger and the three amigos.

Diaz is a particular wild card, given his strong feelings about gay rights and abortion-a situation that isn't improved by yesterday's NY Times story about money from gay rights groups pouring into state democratic coffers: "But many of the philanthropists who have bankrolled gay and lesbian causes throughout the country have poured tens of thousands of dollars in the past month into the State Senate campaign of Rick Dollinger, a Democrat and ally of the gay community. Mr. Dollinger is challenging a Republican incumbent, Joseph E. Robach, whose district includes Rochester."

And this from the only openly gay New York State senator isn't likely to warm Ruben Diaz' heart: “The institutional gay community is very, very invested in this,” said Tom Duane, a Democratic state senator from Manhattan who was one of the state’s first openly gay elected officials when he won his seat in 1998. “I think everyone believes this is the year for New York. This is it, and everyone is going all in.”

So the potential for a tie, then, gives Diaz and the others-in Kruger's case someone who has been aligned with the Republicans, and is someone viewed as a less than partisan figure-the potential to be that fabled Archimedean force that can rule the world. How they act in concert can be the deciding factor in any leadership fight. In effect, they have the potential to bring order to chaos.

And what about that chaos? Here's the governor's view: "It's a nightmare scenario if you are afraid of governance," he said. "But this is democracy, and the people of the state seem somewhat split on who should be running the Senate." And the experts weigh in: "There could be a stalemate ... but a short-term interruption in the operation of one legislative house generally does not cause the house of state to fall apart," said Robert Ward of SUNY's Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. "But if there were gridlock that went on for months, clearly that would be damaging to the state."

If that's the case, particularly in the kind of fiscal mess that the state faces, there will be an even greater urgency to resolve the deadlock-giving the four wild cards even more leverage; something that's also true if the vote turns out to be a one seat margin for either of the two parties: "That's what happened 43 years ago when Democrats won a clear majority of Senate seats but couldn't choose a leader. They were split between supporters of then-new U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. "We had four or five weeks of total deadlock," said Jerome L. Wilson, a state senator in 1963-66 and Wagner supporter. "The government was totally paralyzed" because the Assembly was bogged down in a leadership fight."

So, as we approach election day, more and more media and partisan attention will be focused on the four senators. If they act and stand together, they could be the most unlikely of power brokers. It's been that kind of wild and crazy year.