Friday, December 05, 2008

Follow the Leaders

More information is coming in on the resolution of the state senate leadership fight-a struggle that the NY Times reporters describe as an ongoing "game of chicken:" "The agreement ends weeks of uncertainty following the November elections, which left the Democrats with 32 of the Senate’s 62 seats. Mr. Díaz, Mr. Kruger and Mr. Espada played political chicken, holding out the possibility of their support to both Republicans and Democrats in the chamber."

When the dust clears, however, the Gang of Three dissidents find themselves in positions of power and influence that they couldn't have possibly obtained in the period right after the November 4th election; it took some guts and a great deal of risk to force Malcolm Smith's hand: in effect, it was an offer he couldn't refuse. As the Times points out: "Three dissident Democrats agreed on Thursday to join with their colleagues in the State Senate to make Malcolm A. Smith the chamber’s first Democratic leader in more than 40 years, capping weeks of high-stakes wrangling with a deal that requires Mr. Smith to turn over considerable power to the three men."

While Kruger organized and led the effort, it is Espada who will become, through the hold out negotiation, the highest ranking Hispanic elected official in the state-achieving the Hispanic empowerment that the three rebels were seeking by refusing to immediately support Smith for leader. As the NY Daily News reports: "Among the changes, sources said, the position of Senate president pro tempore and majority leader will be decoupled. Smith will lead the Senate and the Democrats as president pro tempore, while Espada will be named the less-powerful majority leader, making him the highest-ranking Latino leader in state government."

Kruger, however, will inherit a newly empowered finance committee, one that ironically was initially carved out in a template by Dean Skelos who was trying to woo the three dissidents to the Republican banner. As the Times indicates: "Mr. Kruger would most likely become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, with a bigger staff and more autonomy than past committee leaders have had, along with significant sway over budget negotiations and power to approve nominees to top executive branch posts."

The agreement put Skelos and the Republicans in the unusual position of a minority partner in government-with no leadership positions anywhere in NYS. As the NY Post tells us: "The agreement puts an end to a desperate attempt by lame-duck Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau) to hold on to his position despite the Democrats winning a majority in the Senate last month."

And from what we're hearing Senator Diaz, whose issue of gay marriage roiled the month long fight, was given assurances that any legislation on the matter would be referred to-the finance committee chaired by Kruger. Diaz, a leader of the seniors in his district, will be given the chair of the Aging Committee. Here's how the Times reports it: "Mr. Díaz is slated to become chairman of the Senate committee on aging. More important, said people involved in the negotiations, Mr. Díaz is now confident that there will be no vote in the Senate next year on legislation to legalize gay marriage, something which most Senate Democrats support but which Mr. Diaz strongly opposes."

So, in spite of all of the acrimony and uncertainty post-the November election, Democrats will take charge of the state senate for the first time in over forty years. The nature of governance is, however, more than likely to be radically different: "The leadership agreement also includes plans to significantly overhaul the way the Senate does business, a step Mr. Smith had advocated on the campaign trail this year but which the three Democrats had insisted on including in any leadership deal. There will be more parity between Republicans and Democrats in the chamber regarding offices, staff levels and Senate mail privileges, officials said. Republicans and Democrats will sit in alphabetical order, not grouped by party, they said. Mr. Kruger called it “a historic agreement that will change the way the New York State Senate has been run for the better part of 200 years.”

And, as the Times underscores, Kruger and Espada come out of this as the big winners: "The deal is a particular triumph for Mr. Espada and Mr. Kruger, who went from being pariahs in their own party to being two of its leading members." The real challenge ahead, though, is to see just how effective the new leadership-and the new governance structure-can be in the face of the current crisis; all else fades into insignificance if government isn't equipped to act creatively for its citizens.