New York Senate Democrats aren't saying if they are backing a new leader, but insist they are united a week after a power play by an insurgent coalition.
Several Democratic senators emerging from a closed-door meeting in Manhattan gave vague, incomplete answers to questions of whether Sen. Malcolm Smith of Queens is stepping down or being replaced.
It seems likely that the group will in then end ask Smith to step down, The Daily News reported.
After hearing initial legal arguments today, state Supreme Court Justice Thomas McNamara ordered lawyers for the Republican and Democrat contenders back to court next week to continue making their cases.
The Senate's Democratic conference is trying to block Monday's power grab by a coalition of Republicans and two dissident Democrats -- Sens. Pedro Espada, of the Bronx, and Hiram Monserrate, of Queens. They argue the takeover was illegitimate.
The insurgent senators contend the steps they took to seize control were legal and followed Senate rules.
McNamara said that if the senators can't sort out the leadership contest by Monday afternoon -- when they're supposed to return to work -- he'll rule one way or the other in time for the session.
“The dysfunction and chaos in the Senate has wasted an entire week of the people's business,” Gov. David Paterson said Thursday.
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: Monserrate said he wouldn't vote for any bill the coalition might try to bring up Thursday and left the chamber.
"He's not holding up well under all this pressure," a Monserrate supporter told the New York Daily News.
Monserrate said he remains part of the coalition, but wants to forge a compromise that includes members of the Democratic conference who boycotted the session.
"You can't have coalition government with two Democrats and 30 Republicans. It's just not reality," Monserrate told The News.
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 Espada 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 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 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.
In another bizarre twist, Sen. Espada told his colleagues on the Senate floor that his house in Mamaroneck, N.Y., had been burglarized on Tuesday, the day after the coup.
"Things are on the precipice of violence . . . People will get hurt," Espada said Thursday. "It's unfortunate. Office papers and files are missing."
Espada suggested that political opponents were involved. The Senator has had several demonstrations take place outside his home since Monday.
"This was a burglary," Espada said. "I have to tie it in to demonstrations outside my home."
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 on Friday. 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.
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.