GOP coup in Albany: Senators Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada Jr. vote against fellow Democrats

Updated Tuesday, June 9th 2009, 7:55 AM


Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, left, speaks during a news conference. Also pictured from left are Tom Golisano, Sen. Hiram Monserrate, Sen. Pedro Espada, Jr. and Sen. Thomas LIbous.

ALBANY - Chaos reigned in Albany on Monday night after Republicans seemingly pulled off an unprecedented midsession coup to gain control of the chamber.

The GOP flipped two Democrats to shift power to their side, making one of them, Pedro Espada Jr. (D-Bronx), the temporary Senate president.

After weeks of intense discussions, Espada and Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D-Queens) agreed to side with Republicans in what they are calling a new bipartisan coalition to run the Senate.

The two said they will remain Democrats.

Republican Minority Leader Dean Skelos was installed to his old post as majority leader.

Espada and Skelos said they plan to return to session under the new leadership tomorrow.

That could be difficult since the Democrats have locked the gates leading to the Senate chamber, and ousted Majority Leader Malcolm Smith said he will not call his members back to session until order is restored.

With two weeks left in the legislative session, the move throws into question a host of high-profile legislation:

- Reauthorization of mayoral control in the city.

- Legalization of gay marriage.

- Democratic-sponsored ethics reform.

- Changes in city rent laws.

An angry Gov. Paterson called the coup attempt "an outrage" and "despicable," because it comes when a host of issues are unresolved.

"Once again Albany's dysfunction has raised its ugly head," he said.

Paterson vowed, "I will not allow this to go on much further" while acknowledging he has no real say in the matter.

He said he would meet with Espada and Skelos as leaders if their coup stands. As temporary Senate president, Espada would be acting governor if anything happened to Paterson.

Espada said he switched allegiances because the Democrats failed to enact most of the reforms they promised after taking control for the first time since 1965.

He becomes the highest ranking Hispanic elected official in New York government.

"It's a sobering moment, it's not a jubilant moment, but it's a moment that we must have to get our government back," Espada told reporters.

Smith, and his colleagues are expected to sue to stop a coup they called "an illegal and unlawful attempt to gain control of the Senate and reverse the will of the people who voted for a Democratic majority.

"The Senate Democrats are still in the majority; Sen. Malcolm Smith is still the majority leader," Smith told reporters. "It's sad that the Republicans would choose to disrupt the business of this house."

After losing control of the Senate for the first time in 44 years, Republicans had been trying to break the slim 32-30 Democratic majority since January.

Espada and Monserrate were two of four Democrats who originally held out against Smith being elected majority leader.

Monday's coup occurred on the floor in dramatic fashion.

It was about 3 p.m., when the Senate was set to approve a list of legislative pork spending that heavily favored Democrats.

Suddenly, Sen. Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton) began the leadership battle.

Democrats were stunned to see Espada and Monserrate raise their hands in unison with Republicans on procedural votes.

After tense minutes, Deputy Senate Majority Leader Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) called to adjourn the session and Democrats stormed out without a vote.

"Life is circular, my friend," Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) snarled to Espada and Monserrate as she left.

As Republicans, with their two Democratic allies, voted to install Espada and enact new rules for the house, Democrats had the lights in the chamber briefly turned off and threatened to lock the chamber down.

Espada and Monserrate said they will not conference with the Republicans. They say Democrats will have at least 12 committee chairmanships and other leadership perks as part of the unprecedented shared running of the house.

Espada said he expects a court challenge, but said he is confident the coup was legal.

Upstate billionaire Tom Golisano helped broker the coup. He was upset at a state budget that raised taxes and fees by $8 billion.


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