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Two Democrats join Republicans to topple Smith as Senate leader

Democrat Espada elected Senate president
By JAMES ODATO, Capitol bureau
Last updated: 5:00 p.m., Monday, June 8, 2009

ALBANY -- In a dramatic late afternoon overthrow of the Senate leadership, Senate Republicans joined by two dissident Democrats took control of the upper chamber and installed Sen. Pedro Espada as president.

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Minority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Center, was returned to the position of majority leader, the post he held until Democrats took control of the chamber after the November election.

Ordinarily, the majority leader and the Senate president positions are usually held by the same person, but Espada and Skelos are dividing the duties as part of their deal to take over the Senate leadership.

Espada, D-Bronx, who returned to Albany in January after a hiatus, said he is a voice for reform Democrats and that more reformers will be joining his lead. He and Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens joined the 30 Senate Republicans to remove all leadership put into place at the start of year when Sen. Malcolm Smith became the majority leader.

Led by an aggressive push by Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, Republicans forced a resolution that resulted in the vote of Espada as temporary president for the rest of this year. Skelos was also named the vice president.

The Capitol was turned upside down by the move which ends the Democrats' six-month tenure as leaders of the Senate.

"I am a Democrat and I am in charge," said Espada who said he could not sit tight and allow Smith to lead the Senate. "We have been in a quagmire since Jan 7."

The plot to overthrow Smith was supported by Rochester billionaire Thomas Golisano, a three-time gubernatorial candidate and backer of several Senate candidates.

Libous was able to install Sen. George Winner, R-Elmira, to oversee the proceedings. He replaced Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Bethlehem, who had been officiating the Senate when Libous raised his surprise leadership resolution. Breslin was taken aback and had a hard time responding to the hand vote of 32 senators calling for a leadership change.

Eventually, Breslin recognized the vote and left with lawyer Keith St. John so that Republican lawyer Jack Casey and Winner could take the stage. After Espada and Skelos were sworn in, Libous won another resolution to restructure the powerful Rules Committee and cancel all chairmanships and committee appointments.

"Legally, we're absolutely assured," Espada said. "This is about getting a government that works."

Clearly shaken, Democrats left the chamber after the leadership vote, although they first attempted to adjourn. That vote was rejected by Republicans and Espada's allies. As the new leadership began their actions, the lights were turned off in the chamber. They were put back on five minutes later.

Republican aides who had been shoved into the minority seemed buoyed by the turn of events as Democrats seemed unsure of what to do next.


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