ALBANY - The state Capitol has seen it all the past two years: resignation of a disgraced governor, conviction of a state comptroller, indictment of a former legislative majority leader and scandal after scandal - from sexual affairs with interns to embezzlement charges - involving state lawmakers.
But the crowd that built hour by hour on the third floor Monday afternoon got to witness something indeed rare: a very public leadership coup. Whether it holds or not - which will all depend on what some Democratic senators do in the next 24 hours or so - Monday was a day of days.
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What? Is something going on?'' a lobbyist joked as any sense of certainty was unraveling around the Capitol outside the Senate chamber. A couple hours earlier, he was talking with Democrats who controlled the chamber. Before dinnertime, he was among the throng of lobbyists and insiders - some of whom have been cut out of influence since Democrats took over - lined up outside the Senate GOP conference room shaking hands with Republican lawmakers and staffers.
The elements were all here: two Democrats who only six months ago held out for weeks before they would agree to back Malcolm Smith as majority leader - thereby giving Democrats the fragile 32-30 control of the Senate. There were the Republicans, adept as any at Robert's Rules of Order. There were the Senate Democrats, who have been feeling their way all session trying to get their feet wet in learning the ways of Albany. And there were the outside forces, such as Tom Golisano, the Buffalo Sabres owner who helped plot the coup with his advisor, Steve Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic boss.
Where does this go? There were plenty of predictions, but no real answers. Pedro Espada, the new Senate leader - if you buy the insurgents' claims - says he will be adding more Democrats in the days ahead to form, with the Republicans, as close to a coalition government as this town has ever seen. Smith -- if you believe his Al Haig-like boasts - is still in command, and will block what he called an illegal move by Espada and his GOP allies.
At stake is lots - everything from the outcome of major issues that were due to be debated in the final three weeks of the 2009 session and internal machinations of the Democratic and Republican parties to office space at the Capitol and pork barrel spending for districts.
Putting aside policy for a moment, which is never an easy feat at the Capitol, the political equations are many. Can the Republicans use this to try to keep - or get, depending on which side you believe about Monday's coup - control in 2010? That is a crucial election, because the following year all the lines of the Senate, Assembly and congressional seats will be redrawn by whoever controls the Senate, Assembly and governor's office.
Still, the questions are many? Do senators who may have not gotten jobs they were promised - like Lake View's Bill Stachowski, who was in line to become Senate finance chair in a deal that was pulled back by Smith - join with the renegades? Does Sen. Darrell Aubertine, a North Country Democrat, now become convinced by this mess to leave Albany and run in a special congressional election that will be occurring soon who is eyeing running? [Aubertine wouldn't say Monday; if he left, Republicans could take back that seat, adding more numbers drama to the equation.]
And, of course, does Espada really have five more Democrats willing to join his effort, which could lead to a permanent - and successful - coup?
- Tom Precious