Stalemate in N.Y. State Senate Appears to Be Resolved as Democrat Rejoins Caucus

State Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., center, was given a leadership position after he returned to the Democratic caucus.
State Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., center, was given a leadership position after he returned to the Democratic caucus. (By Hans Pennink -- Associated Press)
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

NEW YORK, July 9 -- A month-long political stalemate in New York's state capital, Albany, appeared resolved Thursday when a defecting state senator rejoined the Democratic caucus, once again giving the party a razor-thin majority in the chamber.

Since June 8, control of the state Senate has been deadlocked, with Republicans and Democrats each holding 31 seats, leaving both sides unable to pass bills.

The senator who helped forge and then break the deadlock was Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx. Elected as a Democrat, he decided last month to support the Republicans in what local analysts called a "coup." To lure Espada back to the fold, Democrats gave him the title of majority leader in an expanded leadership team.

The turmoil in Albany had bottled up important legislation. Local governments around the state are running short on cash, and the impasse left them unable to implement planned sales tax hikes. New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) was forced to delay the swearing-in of a new police academy class, and to appoint a new school board after his control of the city's schools expired at the end of June. Gay activists have been waiting for the Senate to act on a bill, already passed by the legislature's lower chamber, that could make New York the seventh and largest state to legalize same-sex marriage.

"I profoundly apologize," Espada said Thursday. "It was never about power, but empowerment, of 62 members."

In a news conference, Espada argued that his goal was to bring the entire 62-member Senate together, instead of having one party or the other ruling by dictate.

Espada also disputed claims that he had left the Democratic Party. "I never left home," he said. "I had a little leave of absence."

At the heart of the conflict was ethnic politics within the Democratic Party. African Americans assumed top leadership positions when Democrats took control of the Senate last November, while Hispanic lawmakers, including Espada, demanded a greater share of the power and perks. The compromise put both blacks and Hispanics in the top jobs, with Malcolm A. Smith, who is African American, taking the Senate presidency.

"Ethnic politics -- black versus Latino -- that's part of what's driving it," said Henry Sheinkopf, a veteran state Democratic strategist.

At a news conference to announce the end of the stalemate, Democratic leaders were all smiles and hugs after a month of acrimony. "This is historic for our community," said Sen. Rubén Díaz, one of an original group of renegade lawmakers dubbed "The Four Amigos." Díaz was also given a leadership job in the new alignment. Díaz and Espada were both born in Puerto Rico. After last November's election, the "Amigos" had initially threatened to block Smith from becoming the state's first black Senate president.

"It's a rainbow coalition," said John L. Sampson, an African American senator from Brooklyn. He was named head of the Democratic conference under the new arrangement.

The impetus for Thursday's compromise appeared to be Gov. David A. Paterson's high-stakes gamble Wednesday night to appoint a lieutenant governor, who would have the power to break a tie if the Senate remained divided. The position had been vacant since Paterson (D), who was lieutenant governor, replaced former governor Eliot L. Spitzer (D), who resigned last year in a sex scandal.

Paterson chose a veteran public servant, Richard Ravitch, 76, with no political ambition. Republicans and others -- including the state's Democratic attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, a Paterson rival -- have said the appointment is unconstitutional. Ravitch, a former head of the state's transportation authority, was sworn in Wednesday night in a secret ceremony at a Brooklyn restaurant, hours before a judge in Nassau County issued a temporary restraining order barring the appointment. Paterson's response Thursday to the judge was, essentially, you're too late.

The judge is set to hear arguments Friday on whether Ravitch's appointment is legal. Without a lieutenant governor and with the Senate in chaos, Paterson has effectively been forced to stay in the state since June 8, as it was unclear who would fill in for him as chief executive. Next in line of succession behind the lieutenant governor is the Senate president.

With Democrats now controlling the chamber by two votes, there remains the possibility that two other Democrats could defect and restore the deadlock. Analysts believed that some members may be angry with Espada gaining a leadership position despite having less experience than others. Espada is also the subject of several ethics investigations.

The Democrats' new majority was so precarious that late Thursday, even once the deal was announced, they were still unable to convene a session. Local media reported the delay was because a member from Queens was having trouble with his pacemaker. He was going to be brought to Albany by a police escort for the Democrats to gather a quorum.

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