Who's in Charge? New York State Senate a ‘Circus' After Party Defections.

New York state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. was one of two Democrats who joined Republicans, and the new coalition named him president pro tempore.
New York state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. was one of two Democrats who joined Republicans, and the new coalition named him president pro tempore. (By Tim Roske -- Associated Press)
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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

NEW YORK, June 15 -- The state capital, Albany, was locked in political chaos Monday, just a week before the legislature is due to go home for the summer and with major bills, from control of New York City schools to same-sex marriage, stacked up and awaiting action.

After a day of confusion, no one knew which party was in control of the 62-member state Senate, which now appears evenly split. Both sides were claiming to be in charge, with no lieutenant governor to break a tie. Gov. David A. Paterson (D) was offering to broker a compromise, but with his approval ratings at a record low, he had few tools to force the senators to make a deal.

An Albany judge said he would give feuding senators until Tuesday to try to figure out who's in charge before the court might have to step in.

It was, in short, a mess, with no ready roadmap for a way out.

"No one has experienced anything quite like this before, so how do we know how to resolve this?" said Henry Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic campaign strategist. "There's no template for this."

Seymour P. Lachman, a former state senator who now teaches politics at Wagner College on Staten Island, said, "It's very, very depressing. There's no game plan out of this." Lachman co-wrote the 2006 book "Three Men in a Room," about the triumvirate that typically has run Albany politics -- the governor, the Senate leader and the Assembly speaker. "At this point," Lachman said, "it's totally, totally dysfunctional."

The power vacuum in Albany comes at a time when legislation typically stacks up for an end-of-session June rush. New York City needs legislative authority to raise local sales taxes, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's signature accomplishment -- mayoral takeover of the city's public schools -- is set to expire unless the legislature acts to extend it.

Gay activists were also awaiting action on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. The measure has passed the Assembly but now seems in limbo with no one in control in the Senate to call for a vote.

The breakdown of order in Albany comes just seven months after Democrats wrested control of the Senate from Republicans for the first time in decades, giving Democrats control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature.

But the Democrats' hold was slim -- just 32 seats to the Republicans' 30 -- and last week, the new Senate majority leader, Malcolm A. Smith, appeared to have been toppled when two Democrats announced they were crossing the aisle to support the GOP.

Republicans announced they had seized control of the chamber, and they named one of the Democratic renegades, Pedro Espada Jr., as president pro tempore. In an event resembling a coup, the chamber doors were locked and a television channel carrying Senate proceedings briefly went blank.

But over the weekend, the other renegade, Sen. Hiram Monserrate, seemed to have a change of heart, and he appeared Monday at a news conference with ousted majority leader Smith. Monserrate's re-defection left the Senate hamstrung and commentators freely using words such as "circus" and "clowns" to describe the atmosphere in the capital.

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