Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The three-ring circus in Albany

If so many important things — things like the state’s economic security and the civil rights of its gay residents — weren’t hanging in the balance, what’s going on in Albany right now would almost be funny. The upstate shenanigans are certainly entertaining, in spite of the stuff that’s not getting done.

The coup that took place in the State Senate on Monday afternoon was fun to watch. (Props to the Albany Times-Union for posting on its blog raw video of what went down.) The Democrats were completely blind-sided by the power play, made possible by the defection of two Democratic turncoats. The Democratic leadership obviously couldn’t believe their ears and eyes. They resisted calling a vote on the motion to replace Majority Leader Malcolm Smith as the Senate’s president pro tem. Then, after the vote was finally called, with every Republican and the two Democratic defectors voting to oust Mr. Smith, the Dems refused to announce the result of the vote. Then, as Mr. Smith later put it, they “gaveled out” the meeting, meaning they adjourned it — or at least attempted to. The motion to adjourn, though made and seconded, was never voted upon. After banging the gavel, Mr. Smith, with 29 Democrats filing out behind him, marched out of the Senate chamber, killing the mics and the lights as they left.

You can’t make this stuff up.

The Democrats are trying to figure out what to do to salvage their short-lived leadership in the Senate, which had been held in the iron-fisted grip of a solid Republican majority for 40 years. The Dems lasted just five months, thanks to the defection of two of their least stellar members.

And while Republicans try to spin this coup as a bipartisan reform effort, it pays to be mindful of the characters with whom they’ve cast their lot. Democrats Pedro Espada of the Bronx (sort of — he might actually live in Westchester, outside of the district he represents, a teensy-weensy legal problem) and Hiram Monserrate of Queens are the party’s weakest links in the Senate. One’s under indictment, the other’s under investigation. They’re not exactly good-government reformers. But then again, good-government reform is not something that springs to mind when one thinks about Senate Republicans.

Except our own senator, Ken LaValle, of course. When I caught up with him Tuesday morning, he was not only delighted with Monday’s coup (especially how he and his colleagues kept it under wraps for weeks, “with members not telling their staffs, or even their wives”) but he was gleeful about the reforms enacted by the 32 senators who remained in the chamber after Malcolm Smith packed up his toys and stomped off the playground in a huff. They include: banning the majority leader from serving as president pro tem; imposing a six-year term limit on the president pro tem; and equalizing the distribution of resources among Senate members, regardless of party affiliation. After 40 years of choking out Senate Democrats, the Republican members got a taste of their own medicine these past five months, and they didn’t like it.

Mr. LaValle said the “thing that’s been gnawing at” him was the way the budget got done this year, and how badly Long Island got hurt. The last straw, he said, was the MTA bailout payroll tax, especially how school districts were not exempted from it. “It was just crushing,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether this “coalition government,” as Mr. LaValle called it, will get anything accomplished during the remainder of this year’s legislative session. Mr. LaValle is hoping to reinstate the STAR rebate program before the recess. And who knows what will become of the gay marriage bill (which, ironically, Mr. Espada sponsored but which Republicans, including Mr. LaValle, generally do not support).

It remains to be seen whether the Senate can even meet. The keys to the Senate chamber are in the hands of the senate secretary, a Smith appointee named Angelo Aponte, and he’s refusing to unlock the chamber doors — figuring, I guess, if he locks the insurgents out, they can’t convene. Never mind that the state constitution requires the doors to be kept open “except when the public welfare shall require secrecy.”

I know Angelo Aponte and he’s not a stickler for details — such as what the state constitution might say. He’s actually the reason I left NYC almost 25 years ago. He was my boss at the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs, where I was a staff attorney in the general counsel’s office. His idea of legal counsel’s role was to provide legal justification — cover, as it were — for whatever he -— the commissioner — wanted to do. He would scream at us to find him a “hook” to hang his hat on. Somewhere in Albany this week, he was no doubt yelling at some young lawyer to provide the rationale for keeping those doors locked. I can almost hear his voice bellowing out, “Find me a hook! Find me a hook!”

I remember precisely the moment I decided it was time for me to move on. It was in the basement of the old building at 80 Lafayette Street in lower Manhattan, where, ignoring my admonition that he had no legal right to do what he was doing, the commissioner of consumer affairs took a crowbar to the video game machines we were storing, pending administrative hearings. The machines had been confiscated by our enforcement agents for unlicensed operation, and Aponte had decided our agency was entitled to the coins locked inside them. I couldn’t find him his hook. I didn’t even try. He had no patience for my lecture about constitutional due process rights. He had his crowbar. I returned to my office before the first machine was cracked open and drafted my resignation.

Yep, characters all around. And so, the three-ring circus that is New York’s excuse for a state legislature continues to entertain. The Democrats claim that everything the Republicans did after Smith “gaveled out” and they walked on Monday doesn’t count because the session was adjourned. The Republicans argue (and they have the rules of parliamentary procedure on their side) that the meeting was not adjourned because there was no vote on the motion to adjourn. They want to reconvene, but they may have to find someplace else to do it, because they’ll probably need a crowbar of their own to get the chamber keys out of Aponte’s hands.

Where this all leads remains to be seen. But one thing’s a pretty safe bet: Good government and the interests of the people of the state will not prevail.

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.