Stateline Story

New York Senate's Top Democrat Eyes Realignment

  • July 12, 2007
  • By Pamela Prah

New York Senate Minority Leader Malcolm A. Smith (D) is accustomed to drama. Actor Denzel Washington was his roommate when both were students at New York's Fordham University.

These days, Smith has a front-row seat at a political drama between Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. The theatrics in Albany come at a time when Democrats are trying to wrest the state Senate from GOP control for the first time in four decades.

Smith, in his first term as the state Senate's top Democrat, works closely with Spitzer on tactics, figuring out which policies the Democrats will push in the Legislature and honing a long-term strategy for the party to bolster its ranks in Albany and on Capitol Hill.

The way Smith sees it, Democrats in the 2008 elections will win more than the three seats they need to take over the 62-member state Senate for the first time since 1966 and retain their commanding lead in the Assembly. That will give the party the upper hand when new congressional districts are drawn after the 2010 Census.

"Once we are in the majority … and draw those lines, we can capture those five seats we lost in Texas," he said referring to five U.S. congressional seats the Republicans picked up in 2004 under a Texas redistricting plan engineered by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R). It was pushed through the Texas state Legislature after the GOP gained control in 2002.

Smith spoke to Stateline.org during a June 26-27 trip to Washington, D.C., his first since taking the leadership post. His packed schedule included meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

Smith, a real-estate developer from Queens, was tapped in 2006 to lead his fellow Democrats in the Senate after Spitzer picked the former minority leader, David A. Patterson of Harlem, to be his running mate as lieutenant governor.

New York Democrats have been chipping away at the GOP edge in the state Senate, including a win earlier this year when a Democrat won a special election for a Nassau Country seat that had been held by a Republican, Michael Balboni, who resigned when Spitzer named him his homeland security director.

Smith, 51, said he hopes to add to the Democratic ranks by loosening the grip the GOP has had on the suburbs and by promoting a plan that "looks out for working families that play by all the rules and no one is looking out for them."

The Democrats also are coordinating their strategies at the federal, state and local levels so that the party is speaking with a unified voice, said Smith, whose resume includes stints with former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch and Democratic vice president candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

Once the Democrats are in charge, Smith said they will make fundamental changes to a statehouse that New York University's Brennan Center of Justice described in a 2004 report as the most dysfunctional in the country. Even if two-thirds of the members want to vote on a bill, the decision is up to the leadership. "Right now, bills are at the stranglehold of the majority leaders - even committee chairs can't send a bill to the floor," he said.

Smith is the man in the middle between Spitzer and Bruno, trying to broker deals and settle tempers. Spitzer, who a month after being sworn into office r eportedly told a top Assembly Republican, "Listen, I'm a (expletive) steamroller and I'll roll over you and anybody else." The governor is now urging New Yorkers to play "Where's Waldo," complete with a slide show with a large photo of Bruno, to prod lawmakers to go back to work.

For his part, Bruno has called Spitzer "some little rich kid having a tantrum" who needs to realize "we're not in a Third World country where he is a dictator." The latest brouhaha between the governor and the senate majority leader is over Bruno's use of state aircraft to travel to Manhattan fundraisers.

Smith, who was first elected to the state Senate in 2000, said the media has exaggerated the spats between the governor and majority leader. "They actually don't fight as much as the press reports," Smith said.

New York Republican State Committee spokesman Matthew Walter said Smith has closely aligned himself with Spitzer, who Walter said has "insulted, bullied and threatened' the Legislature since he became governor.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist, agreed that Smith was criticized early on for being too close to Spitzer, but he said the minority leader has proven he is a "good battlefield general" who works well within his party and with people of all walks of life. "He's a different kind of leader."