Monday, December 08, 2008

Who's On First?

The closed door meeting held by State Senator Malcolm Smith and some 30 of his Democratic colleagues-ostensibly held to clear the air and reaffirm support for Smith's leadership-seems to have only muddied the waters; with further clarity expected some time early this week. As Liz B reported on Saturday: "The Senate Democrats spent about three-and-a-half hours behind closed doors and emerged, according to an official statement from current Senate Minority Leader Smith's office, "united in their support" of his ongoing leadership and looking forward to being in the majority come January...Unofficially speaking, it's not so cut-and-dried."

The problem lies, at least so it appears, with the fact that Smith has ruffled some of the feathers of his conference with the deal he struck last week with the three amigos: "My source said that while Smith's leadership wasn't officially challenged today, a handful of members made it clear they won't be able to support giving as much power to two of the renegades - Sen. Carl Kruger and Senator-elect Pedro Espada Jr. - as they claim to have been promised in a handshake deal with Smith as Gov. David Paterson, Tom Golisano and Rep. Greg Meeks looked on."

Smith, for his part, seemed to try to walk back from the deal: "Smith repeatedly assured his members that "everything you've heard and read about in the newspaper has not been agreed on," although he did allow that some of what has appeared has indeed been discussed with the Gang of Three." This, of course, is simply a flight of fantasy-one that was propelled by a desire to quell discontent.

It did lead, however, to the following response from a clearly upset Carl Kruger: "The Brooklyn senator took issue with Smith's suggestion that all 32 members of the Democratic conference remain in his corner, saying that if the leader believes he'll be able to reneg on what the Gang of Three believed was a hard-and-fast agreement "then that's his delusion." Kruger also suggested that Smith might be experiencing some "flights of fantasy." "He has the support of the coalition if he lives up to the agreement in its entirety," a clearly angry Kruger declared. "This is not slice and dice. It's not open to renegotiation. Negotiations are not closed. As far as the three of us are concerned, this is not ongoing. We're holding Malcolm to his word."

It would appear extremely difficult for Smith to walk this deal back. The public record is just too clear. As the NY Times reported last Saturday: "Even as some State Senate Democrats privately questioned a power-sharing deal struck by their leader, Malcolm A. Smith, the three former dissidents who brokered the deal are making clear that they expect him to stand by it."

And the three issued strong public statements: "In a joint statement on Friday, Mr. Espada and the two other dissidents, Senator Carl Kruger of Brooklyn and Senator Rubén Díaz Sr. of the Bronx, said the deal includes reforms that will “change the way the New York State Senate has been run for the better part of 200 years” and will “make the New York State Senate one of the most bipartisan legislative houses in the United States.”

And, as of late Saturday-after some behind the scenes maneuvering-it appeared as if Smith, with some prodding from some expected quarters, was planning to live up to the negotiated settlement. We believe that public announcement of the new changes is expected by no later than Wednesday. Whatever happens, all is certainly not smooth sailing in the upcoming senate session that begins next month.

With a narrow 32-30 majority, and new more democratic rules, leadership will involve greater negotiation skills. Gone are the days where one man can basically control the flow of all bills in the upper chamber. What this means, is that bipartisan negotiation will have to accompany every piece of contested legislation; and that a concerted coalition of senators can stymie things if they are so determined to do so.

Democracy has its price-and at times it will seem too high if legislation that someone feels is important gets held up in the new open process. At the same time, all of this should take pl;ace in a more transparent manner; so that it will be clear who's obstructing what. Some good government people should keep this in mind-because there will be times, when some of the things they might hold dear, are shunted aside because of a lack of support.

It is also true, that there will be times where some folks may get a bit nostalgic for a more powerful senate leader. In a crisis, the ability of a strong legislative leader to move the body is often welcome; although, clearly, this is a double-edged sword-and your view is determined on where you sit on the issue in question.

Smith appears to recognize this new reality; as Daily Politics points out: "Another source who was present at the meeting said Smith was successful in making it clear just how difficult life will be for the Democrats, even if they do manage to hold their fragile majority in tact, with such a small margin between themselves and the GOP. "People expressed their frustrations and we're talking it through," this source said. "It's going to be challenging. With 32 votes, you've got to keep everyone on board at all times."