12/21/2011 11:28 am ET | Updated Feb 20, 2012

Carl Kruger's Fall Highlights Woeful State of Albany's Senate Democrats

State Senator Carl Kruger has plead guilty to accepting $500,000 in bribes. The government says Kruger gobbled up $1 million in payoffs, but who's counting?

Kruger's conviction is much more significant than the normal state-legislator-goes-to-the-clink. Let me tell you what it means.

Chances are, you've never heard of Kruger. Or perhaps you did, and were fascinated by the part where authorities discovered that the conservative Democrat from Queens, who supposedly lived a quiet life with his sister, had actually been enjoying a life of luxury in a waterside mansion with two gynecologist brothers and their mother.

There's something about the "two gynecologist brothers and their mother" that does draw attention.

Kruger is also part of the answer to an Albany mystery -- why is Gov. Andrew Cuomo so indifferent to the question of whether his Democratic party can win back the state Senate in the next election?

Thanks to the miracle of gerrymandering, the state Senate had long been controlled by the Republicans. The Democrats, as the minority party, had nothing to do. Nothing, nothing, nothing. No power. No duties. They showed up, attendance was taken, and after that they might as well be at home in bed. It's not a job that usually attracts the best and the brightest. It attracts Carl Krugers.

So in the 2008 election, when the Democrats miraculously won control, 32-30, there were very few adults in the new majority. Although there were some sterling characters in the mix, the average member had all the leadership, intelligence and integrity of moss.

Very soon, four of the Democrats -- Kruger, a Queens ex-cop named Hiram Monserrate; Ruben Diaz, a minister from the Bronx and Pedro Espada, another Bronx Democrat who served as ringleader -- declared their independence. They were the "Four Amigos," and if the Democratic leadership didn't give them what they wanted, they were prepared to transfer their votes to the Republicans. What the Amigos wanted wasn't clear, but whatever it was, it pretty clearly couldn't be discussed in public.

Chaos ruled. The Senate could barely order coffee, let alone pass a budget.

In retrospect, the most stunning part of the Four Amigos' betrayal -- and re-betrayal as they crossed back and forth between parties -- was that they were exactly the sort of legislators you would think would not want to bring attention to themselves.

Kruger, we now know, was living a secret life with the two gynecologists and their mother, financed by bribes for doing everything from helping hospitals get permission to merge to helping liquor stores get permission to stay open later. Espada was running an empire of publicly funded health care services in the Bronx from which, authorities now claim, he was stealing money to fund his lifestyle in a comfortable suburban home far removed from the poor district he supposedly represented. Monserrate was eventually expelled for the Senate for pleading guilty to assaulting his girlfriend.

The remaining Amigo, Diaz, has not been accused of anything except being totally out to lunch. (Even going out to lunch proved too much for this quartet. On one occasion, Diaz announced that a Four Amigos lunch at a diner in Mamaroneck had been canceled because the press had been told of the get-together. "Some of the members did not like the idea that the media was informed. As you know, I do not like to conduct secret meetings," Diaz said.

This was the level of pathetic incompetence to which the Senate Democrats had sunk, and this is at least a good part of the reason why Gov. Cuomo isn't eager to have them back in power. He's been getting along fine with the Republicans, who are dim and lacking in principles, but only by the normal Albany standards.

But right now, the legislative districts are being redrawn again. Will it be done in a fair way, which would almost certainly give the Democrats a majority? Or will it be done the usual unfair way? The state Republican Party wants unfair. The Assembly Democrats could care less who was running the Senate as long as all the existing incumbents downstairs get to keep their seats with as little trouble as possible.

Cuomo has vowed to demand something better and fairer, which might -- over the long run -- produce a Democratic majority in the Senate whose members could tie their own shoes without help or a bribe.

But it would be a long learning process. Let's see if Cuomo is up for the challenge.