- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

ALBANY, N.Y. | Pandemonium erupted on the floor, the lights went out and the live television feed went black as the coup unfolded.

Republicans seized control of the New York Senate this week in a takeover that played out like comic opera, with the Democrats locking the chamber’s 15-foot brass gates and hiding the keys, and the GOP rebels vowing to convene in a park outside the state Capitol if necessary.

With just a few weeks left in the legislative session, the rebellion could thwart the Democrats’ attempts to legalize gay marriage and expand tenants’ rights.

But more than that, the hard feelings could paralyze the Capitol while the state is dealing with a fiscal crisis, damage Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson, and reinforce New York’s reputation for legislative gridlock. The New York Post ran a mocking front-page photo of a clown in full makeup, and the headline, “Let’s get serious.”

“Once again, Albany dysfunction has raised its ugly head,” the governor said after the overthrow, which was executed on Monday with great precision and the element of surprise. “This is despicable,” Mr. Paterson said.

Complaining of the Democrats’ attempts to raise taxes and increase spending, the 30 Republicans in the Senate pulled off the coup by making common cause with two of the Democrats in the 62-member chamber. After the overthrow, one of the turncoats was installed as the new Senate president.

The ousted Democrats - who had been in power for only six months, after 40 years in the minority - swore the maneuver was illegal. On Wednesday, they said they would seek a temporary restraining order to stop the Republicans from taking power, and would boycott the chamber in the meantime.

The Democrats are “fully prepared to go back to the people’s work, but will not enter the chamber to be governed by unlawful rules,” said Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the ousted leadership.

The legislative session is scheduled to end June 22, but the new leadership said it will work all summer if necessary. The Democrat-led Assembly has stayed out of the fight.

The plot was orchestrated by billionaire B. Thomas Golisano, owner of hockey’s Buffalo Sabres. Mr. Golisano helped bankroll the Democrats’ victory in the Senate last fall, but grew angry earlier this spring over Majority Leader Malcolm Smith’s support of a budget that would increase spending and raise taxes on the wealthy.

In April, Mr. Golisano met with Mr. Smith to talk things over. According to Mr. Golisano, Mr. Smith fiddled with his BlackBerry and didn’t seem to be paying attention. Mr. Golisano soon began meeting secretly with Republicans to plot Mr. Smith’s overthrow.

To pull off the coup, the Republicans needed two Democrats. They found them in two lawmakers who have become emblematic of Albany’s problems:

•Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx, the newly installed Senate president, who owes tens thousands of dollars in fines for election-law violations and is under investigation over the health care clinics he operates.

• Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens, who has been charged with slashing his girlfriend’s face with a broken glass and could lose his seat if convicted.

With the plan in place, GOP Sen. Thomas Libous introduced without fanfare a nondescript bill that, once read, toppled the Democratic leadership. A press release went out urging reporters to go to the chamber immediately because a historic change was going on “RIGHT NOW.”

Shocked Democrats stalled, then walked out, turning off the lights. They shut down the in-house television feed. “Please Stand By” was broadcast instead.

Mr. Smith’s Democrats called it a power grab that had nothing to do with reform. They called Mr. Espada a disgrace and Mr. Monserrate a thug.

“Don’t talk to me about ethical background in Albany,” Mr. Golisano shot back. “We have a governor who stood on a podium on national television and said he had extramarital affairs and used cocaine.”

The coup could deliver a crushing blow to Mr. Paterson, whose approval rating sank to a feeble 19 percent in May. New York’s first black governor, who took office 16 months ago after Eliot Spitzer’s fall in a call-girl scandal, is up for election in 2010.

Mr. Paterson sharply condemned the coup, but had to admit to reporters he could do nothing to put the Democrats back in power in the Senate.

“It’s over,” Mr. Libous said. “Thirty-two votes rule. It’s pretty simple.”

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