The Gang of…?

On November 4, the Democrats won pretty handily nationally: Barack Obama won the presidency, they swept an as-yet unknown number of Republicans out of the federal Senate, and expanded an already impressive majority in the federal House of Representatives. They also did well at the state level; apparently they won enough state Senate seats to attain a majority. If they hold the Senate, the Democratic realignment of New York State politics will be complete. However, a small group of dissident Democratic senators doesn’t seem to want that to happen. These Democrats have a rather confusing agenda

Enter first, Ruben Diaz Sr.. Diaz is perhaps the strangest of the group, a long-time player in Bronx local politics popular with the ethnic Puerto Ricans in the south and central Bronx neighborhoods of Castle Hill, Clason Point, Parkchester, Morrisania, Hunts Point, Melrose, Pelham Parkway, Union Port, Longwood, and Soundview. He arguably even began a small dynasty, as his son Ruben Diaz Jr. represents much of the same area in the New York State Assembly as a Democrat. Diaz is an unusual animal in orthodox New York State politics: he roughly tows a pre-Clinton Democratic line on matters of health policy. At the same time, he’s an authoritarian on social issues, especially gay marriage. He has said he will not support a candidate for Senate Majority Leader who will allow a vote for gay marriage to even be considered.

Of the small group of Senate Democrats who don’t want the Democrats to control the chamber—unless, that is, the Democrats pander sufficiently to them—Diaz might have the clearest agenda. Besides Diaz, the other three were Pedro Espada Jr., Carl Kruger, and Hiram Monserrate. According to The New York Times (“Democrats Likely to Keep Control of State Senate,” by Jeremy W. Peters, 2008-11-06):

None of the four dissidents have said that they will support Malcolm A. Smith, who is poised to become the majority leader. Instead, the self-named Gang of Four has refused to back a candidate for leader, saying they want their concerns addressed first. Chief among those concerns, the senators have said, is having more Latino senators placed in leadership roles.

As a matter of fact, the Gang of Four is now the Gang of Three. Monserrate made a deal with Smith on November 8th, a few days after the election, apparently expecting a committee post, according to the Associated Press (“New York Sen.-elect Monserrate breaks from dissidents,” Newsday, 2008-11-09). There was some contradictory information out there about what exactly Monserrate got out of endorsing Smith. According to The New York Daily News, “Monserrate insists he was not promised a committee chairmanship or a leadership post, though sources said he will chair the Consumer Affairs Committee and a new Democratic Latino caucus” (“Queens Sen.-elect Hiram Monserrate quits ‘Gang of 4,’ deals eyed with other rebel Democrats,” by Ken Lovett, 2008-11-09).

The Daily News credits Kruger, perhaps memorable as an opponent of New York City’s home rule during the congestion charging (he did propose an alternative) fiasco, as the “mastermind” of the now Gang of Three (“Dean Skelos ups ante with Gang of 3 Woos Dems to keep Senate in GOP rule,” by Juan Gonzales, 2008-11-28):

The mastermind of the rebellion has been Kruger, a conservative Democrat whose campaign coffers are flush with cash – much of it from the real estate industry.

Kruger is supposedly independent of most other members of the state Senate, referring to himself as a “caucus of one.” According to Daily News blogger Elizabeth Benjamin, Kruger apparently doesn’t think too highly of his fellow Democrats:

“I might have popped in one or two times over the course of a couple of years,” he continued. “If anybody had ever sat in on the Democratic caucuses, they would probably understand why not…But I have never, ever, ever attended a Republican conference.”

(NOTE: To clarify, as per a request from the senator, Kruger was speaking “sardonically” when he refered to himself a “better class of people” than the Senate Democrats).

Nonetheless, other sources say Kruger considers himself a Democrat and went to great lengths during the election to show off his Democratic credentials. Kruger has had a share of conflicts with Republicans too, including with Dean Skelkos, the majority leader of the Republican Caucus. Most notably, suburbanite Skelkos opposes the city re-implementing the commuter tax overturned in 1999 at the behest of an odd coalition consisting of Democrats and Republicans trying to pander to suburbanites teamed with then-U.S. Senate candidate Rudy Giuliani, who perhaps also wanted to pander to suburbanites. Kruger supports the commuter tax (“Commuter tax plan illustrates Albany’s new tensions” by Dan Janison, Newsday, 2008-11-21):

Urging support for the tax, Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) said, “While the [1999] repeal may have wooed suburban voters, it was a shortsighted and fiscally unsound move.”

Ironically, Kruger belongs to the supposedly renegade “gang of three” Democrats who, Senate Republicans claim, could help re-elect Skelos as majority leader when a new Legislature convenes in January – despite a new 32-30 Democratic edge.

Even if you find the Skelos power scenario plausible, it is clear that Kruger might offer little in the way of substantive help to the GOP leader – at least on this hot issue. And fellow Senate “gang” members Pedro Espada Jr. and Pedro Diaz Sr., both represent parts of the Bronx – whose voters, of course, won’t mind taxing suburbanites.

Perhaps the biggest motivation of the dissidents is a virulent strain of Hispanic cultural jingoism. A columnist at The Daily Freeman goes so far as to call this racism (“Will Democrats get their act together?” by Alan Chartock, 2008-11-16):

There have also been overtones from the “Gang of Four” that are decidedly racist. That’s because the leader of the Senate Democrats is Malcolm Smith, an African American.

Said Diaz, a member of the gang, “There is concern that we have a black president, a black governor and we have a concern that we have to be sharing power.”

THIS TIME, however, that black governor, the highly popular David Paterson, is apparently putting his foot squarely on the throats of the “Gang of Four.” He is letting them know that he won’t tolerate their undermining of the Democratic ascendancy that he, Paterson, helped to get going when he was the leader of the Senate Democrats.

Chartock goes on to mention what an embarrassment the Gang of Three are:

In a huge Democratic year, these characters are doing themselves no good with their cheap, underhanded politics. What’s more, they show once again that Will Rogers was right when he said that he didn’t belong to any organized political party because he was a Democrat.

If the Democrats don’t get it right this time, they will properly be the laughingstock of New York. They will not deserve to held power. Democracy will be thwarted because the Republicans will go back to pigging it up — giving their members everything while throwing scraps to the Democrats and redistricting themselves so that only they can win.

In this regard, I’m inclined to say he’s right. If the Democrats are supposed to represent the future, part of that future needs to be post-racial politics. Achievement for blacks need not come at the expense of Hispanics.

Besides having an obviously self-serving agenda, the Gang of Three all have some interesting skeletons in their closets. Espada had some financial disclosure issues (“Rogue Bronx pol never registered campaign committee,” by Kenneth Lovett of The New York Daily News, 2008-11-20):

The News recently reported that Senator-elect Pedro Espada Jr. had missed all five required financial disclosures for his campaign this year.

Yesterday, state Board of Elections spokesman Robert Brehm said Espada hasn’t even bothered to register his campaign committee.

By not registering and making the proper filings, it’s impossible to tell who financed his campaign and how the money was spent.

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