Amid protests, courtroom tussling and confusion in the Capitol, Republicans and two dissident Democrats briefly reopened New York’s Senate chamber Thursday only to be stymied when their Democratic opponents locked up bills and withheld the stenographer.
The insurgents quickly adjourned after suffering a surprising crack in their ranks: One of the dissident Democrats, Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens, said he wouldn’t vote for any bill the coalition might try to bring up Thursday and left the chamber. He said he remains part of the coalition but wants to forge a compromise that includes members of the Democratic conference who boycotted the session.
The coalition needs Monserrate’s vote to have a majority in the 62-seat chamber, which was controlled 32-30 by Democrats until Monday.
Monserrate and another Democratic senator, Pedro Espada of the Bronx, joined with Republicans to seize control of the Senate on Monday. Shocked Democrats walked out and have since withheld the keys to the chamber, which led to the coalition using an unauthorized key to open the chamber on Thursday.
Minutes before the session, state Supreme Court Justice George Ceresia refused the Democrats’ request to stop the coalition from opening the Senate. At one point, even Republicans were telling reporters they heard the judge ruled against them.
“The upshot is it’s causing confusion. It’s causing chaos,” the justice said. “I think the people of the state of New York deserve an organized, unchaotic Senate.”
Ceresia ordered lawyers from both sides back to court this morning to argue whether Sen. Malcolm Smith, elected majority leader by the Democratic conference in January, remains in charge of the Senate or if Espada is the new top officer.
Ceresia said he probably would have issued a temporary restraining order against both sides to halt any further political shenanigans in the Senate, but law prohibited him from keeping public officers from their duties. However, Ceresia said he wants the leadership issue resolved quickly.
On Thursday afternoon, lawyers for the Democrats took their case to a higher court. Appellate Division Justice Karen Peters temporarily ordered that Espada couldn’t succeed the governor if the job should become vacant but left the broader arguments over which group should control the Senate to court hearings today. But both sides claimed victory.
Democratic Gov. David Paterson said he still recognizes Smith, a Queens Democrat, as majority leader and said he will call the Legislature back to Albany if they end the session without resolving several major issues, including whether to legalize same-sex marriage.
“The dysfunction and chaos in the Senate has wasted an entire week of the people’s business,” said Paterson.
, who is also head of the state party.
Back at the Capitol, more than 150 supporters from two groups closely aligned with Democrats chanted in the Senate lobby, thrusting signs that said: “Senate Not for Sale” and “Voters not Donors.” They referred to the involvement of billionaire B. Thomas Golisano, who has long sought to reform Albany politics and who helped broker the coalition deal.
Coalition senators nervously worked their way through the shouting crowd to reach the Senate doors, which opened just enough to let lawmakers through as the protesters clawed at them. Several Republicans are in their 60s and one, Sen. Thomas Libous, who ran Monday’s parliamentary overthrow, was using a cane Thursday after a flare-up of a herniated disk. Republican Sen. James Alesi of Monroe County said he fell to one knee because of the crush of the crowd and said his top staffer was spat upon.
Senators asked state police to monitor the protesters.
Espada said he has faced “intimidation, perhaps even criminal intimidation, harassment, my home was broken into, burglarized, my character was assassinated, my record has been distorted.
“But my mission, my purpose, has not been derailed or deflated,” Espada said in an emotional speech from the Senate floor. “I came here to rectify Democrats and Republicans . . . Like Sen. Monserrate, I am a Democrat. That is my registration. My obligation … is to represent all New Yorkers.”
The Senate adjourned this week without action on any major policy issues, with five days left in the scheduled session.
“It’s a total mess,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
“This has gone beyond disgust,” said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters. “It degrades the political system and it certainly degrades democracy,” she said.