Monday, November 03, 2008

Will Malcolm Be in the Middle?

As Liz B pointed out last week, the leadership battle for the state senate is about to come to a head: "Senate Democrats have been told by their minority leader, Malcolm Smith, to hold the day after Election Day open for a likely conference in Albany, multiple lawmakers confirmed. The purpose of the meeting? "Reorganization," which means a possible leadership vote (not for the whole Senate, mind you, as that requires all members of both parties to be present, but for the Democratic conference)."

What will happen on Wednesday, of course, depends on what happens tomorrow; since the numbers will dictate all of the post election maneuvering: "This doesn't necessarily mean that Smith is getting cocky and thinking he wants to rush a majority leader vote. It could be that the vote that day will again be for who will lead the Democratic minority, in which case, Smith could find himself with some explaining to do to members of his conference, who are very anxious to get some power. And, of course, in the case of a 31-31 deadlock, all bets are off because they won't BE a majority - or a majority leader - and the new, so-called "independent caucus" (Kruger, Espada, Diaz, and Monserrate) will be empowered."

But it's not only a 31-31 deadlock that's problematic for the leadership determination. The four independents could be the ultimate political fulcrum-for either party; and that goes even if there's a two vote margin on either side. In any case, the body appears ripe for change-and whoever does becomes leader, will take over in the most difficult of circumstances. Change, however, does appear to be likely.

Then. of course, there's Jeff Klein, who's been chomping at the bit to rise into the leadership roll. In this morning's column in the NY Daily News, Liz relates the following: "If the Democrats are successful, however, Smith won't be out of the woods. He could be ripe for a leadership coup.
Surrogates for Deputy Minority Leader Jeff Klein, including his political consultant, Roberto Ramirez, have been talking up the Bronx Democrat as a potential replacement for Smith, according to several lobbyists who have been privy to those talks."

And if there is a tie, wither the Democratic conference? Even with a slim majority, however, the absence of support from the "independents" throws the Democrats into a potential internecine battle. As Klein reminds us: "Klein touted his funding of the Democrats' fight for control, saying he has contributed more than $750,000 from his own campaign committee this year alone. "That story hasn't been written yet," he said. "The biggest donor to the Senate Democrats is me."

In this scenario, the balance of power may actually shift back to the Republicans; as feuding Dems find themselves unable to agree. In this kind of mix, Governor Paterson may play a role-even though Liz believes that he will stay out of the fight: "Paterson has said he expects Smith will remain leader, but insists he won't meddle in the vote. His calculations will likely turn on his own political future and whether he wants to anger the powerful Queens Democrats and Smith's mentor, former Rep. Floyd Flake, as he prepares for his first gubernatorial campaign. "It's all about 2010 for David," said one lawmaker." In our view, Paterson's interest is in having the strongest ally in the upcoming budget showdown. The jury's out as to whether he feels Smith is that ally.

Meanwhile, as the NY Times observed yesterday, Smith is trying to be creative as the showdown looms: "Whether he will follow through remains to be seen. But in an interview, Mr. Smith, a Queens Democrat, who would be the state’s first black majority party leader if his party gains control of the Senate, listed a litany of the sweeping promises politicians make when they stand outside the levers of power."

What kind of promises? Well, Smith is looking for a more open and decentralized senate: "He said he would reinvent the Senate’s committees, which often have little discernible authority, and make them work more like committees do in Congress. He said he would move to cut the Senate majority’s central staff by at least 15 percent, or roughly 100 workers. He said he would narrow the wide gap between the resources allocated to majority and minority party members for office budgets. And he would move quickly to introduce legislation to publicly finance elections, despite the state’s fiscal crisis."

Why propose these things now, even before the new senate landscape is known? Republicans scoff at the proposals: "Senate Republicans have accused Mr. Smith of being more concerned with process than with issues that matter to voters, but their main and most potent electoral pitch has focused more on geography than policy."

The reason lies with the leadership battle itself; Smith is trying to win over his conference-and possibly prevent Kruger and the three amigos from acting as a wild card. But, in our view, this is a bit premature, even though the substance of some of Smith's proposal have merit. As one good government observer told the Times: "If he delivered, it would be the equivalent of a political earthquake,” said Blair Horner, the legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group."

The question that will pervade the leadership debate, is whether Smith is the man most capable of leading the senate into this kind of uncharted good government water. In fact, he could turn out to be a Moses; leading the senate Dems right up into the Promised Land-only to be denied entry himself.

This will all be played out after the voters have their say tomorrow. As the Times highlights, the state GOP is fighting for its life, and may still yet fight off the Democratic surge. As the Siena Polls tell us (via Liz), this one's too close to call; and the composition could remain the same or shift to as many as a four seat Democratic margin. We'll all be watching closely Tuesday night."