New York State Sen. Brian X. Foley (D-Brookhaven) knew it wouldn’t be easy. A self-professed “agent of change,” the newest member of the state Senate expected challenges upon assuming his seat—his election heralded the first change in its majority in almost 45 years. And besides, he had been in similar situations before: His election to Brookhaven Town supervisor in 2005 marked its first shift from Republican to Democratic majority in close to four decades.
The events of June 8, he tells the Long Island Press, admittedly took the veteran politician by surprise—not because of what happened, so much, as the timing of it all. Republican state senators staged a coup that day, ousting Sen. Malcolm A. Smith (D-Queens) as Senate majority leader and wrestling power away from Democrats. Since the takeover, the Senate’s entire legislative process has careened to a grinding halt while elected officials battle for control and power. Critical bills have been left in limbo. Taxpaying voters are holding the bag.
Foley argues that the final three weeks of a legislative session are typically its most productive and that any change in leadership should have taken place at the beginning of a session, not at its end. The Senate’s session ended June 22. He adds that several pieces of legislation were ready to be approved the day of the coup that would have directly benefitted Long Islanders: funding for the annual LI Philharmonic summer concert at Heckscher State Park and a foreclosure clinic for residents at Touro Law School, among others.
“We were shocked,” Foley tells the Press. “We were passing bills, both Republican bills and Democratic bills…We were hitting our stride and passing legislation to help the state of New York.”
“Just as a general principle, the first year of reform or of change is never an easy one, whether in town government or here in state government, but one would never expect at the end of session to have occur what did occur,” he adds. “The end of session is the wrong time to undertake a leadership battle, to undertake a power grab, for a Democrat or Republican.”
Republicans were able to oust Smith with the help of Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D-Queens) and Sen. Pedro Espada, Jr. (D-Bronx), who since the coup has been the acting president of the Senate. Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) has become its majority leader. Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) says the dramatic overthrow by Republicans was more a necessary action to level the playing field than simply an attempt at seizing power.
“We weren’t moving,” explains Marcellino. “Nothing was happening in a positive way. Some of the legislation that was being put out was flawed and bad, costing my constituents tremendous amounts in property tax increases and in income tax increases. It’s bad news. This is not something that we could tolerate, and so we had to stop it. And the only way we could stop it is by becoming relevant, in other words, changing the leadership, which we were able to do on June 8.”
New York State Gov. David Paterson has called upon members to resolve the power struggle and has convened special sessions each day since last session’s regular end. The Senate, however, remains deadlocked, at 31-31. The latest battle among the warring sides concerns the stipulations of a bipartisan operating agreement that would potentially end the stalemate.
Democrats are calling for a short-term deal, in which both parties would alternate roles as presiding officer and floor leader. There would also be a six-member committee—three Democrats and three Republicans—to decide what bills would come to the floor. Foley says about 20 other state Legislatures have adopted similar power sharing arrangements. The goal is to get legislation flowing again and end the current logjam, he says.
“Both Democrats and Republicans in other states, when there’s a tie, agreed to this framework of bipartisan operating arrangement in order to get bills passed,” explains Foley.
Republicans are pushing for a bipartisan, power-sharing operating agreement too, but one that’s longer-term. They want an agreement that carries through 2010 and keeps the new Espada-Skelos power structure intact. Marcellino explains they also seek more of a balance of power in the Senate going forward. On the same day as the coup, he tells the Press, Republicans instituted rules changes that promote a 50-50 sharing, including co-committee chairs, term limits, equal membership on committees and the equal distribution of resources, among others.
“It’s more than just a change in leadership, it’s a change in the way the Senate is run and will be run for years to come,” says Marcellino. “It’s a much better way to run the house and it will make it a fairer house and it will improve the lots of all of the citizens, because all of the citizens living in the state will be treated equally.”
Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington), who has been working with Foley on the Democrat’s bipartisan power-sharing plan, says there’s nothing altruistic at all about the Republican’s actions.
“This has been a power grab, plain and simple,” he says. “What seems to be foremost in the minds of this Espada Republican group is getting power back. And that’s wrong. We need to be there passing legislation.”