New York Senate Debacle: The Powerbrokers of 1965 and Pissants of 2009

07/31/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, Alan Hevesi was in the Times comparing the 2009 New York state Senate fracas with a similar mess that left both chambers leaderless in 1965. Hevesi said '65 appears worse because the stalemate dragged on for six weeks, whereas the 2009 crisis is still only half that old.... But even when considering its length or that this time it's confined to just half of the legislature, I argue 2009 is much, much worse. It's the difference between the lever that sets the gears of government in motion and the wrench that grinds them to a halt.

Let's go back to 1964. The Republican Party was coming down from a decade of total domination in New York politics. Besides the unmovable state comptroller Arthur Levitt (more nonpartisan than Democrat), Democrats hadn't won a statewide race since 1954. It was even unfriendly territory for the party's national candidates: John Kennedy was the first Democrat to carry the state since Franklin Roosevelt. At the time, Kansas -- Kansas -- was the only state more Republican-dominated than New York....

But 1964 was a big year for New York Democrats. Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory, defeating Goldwater in all sixty-two counties; Robert Kennedy unseated Senator Kenneth Keating; and the New York state Senate and Assembly elected Democratic majorities for the first time in thirty years.

And right away, the Democrats were at each other's throats.

On one side was an alliance of New York City Mayor Robert Wagner, Jr., and Tammany Hall for the incumbent Democratic leaders, Joseph Zaretzki and Anthony Travia; on the other, Jack Bronston* and Stanley Steingut, backed by a majority of the bosses and the half-hearted support of Reform Democrats. Bronston was a liberal senator from Queens, a Harvard-educated Phi Beta Kappa wonk. Steingut was the son of the last Democratic Assembly speaker three decades earlier, described by muckraker Jack Newfield as the "issue-oriented boss of Brooklyn." They were to the left of Zaretzki and Travia, who were seen as ineffective and too close to Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Of course, the candidates themselves weren't the guys in charge; the bosses were. And these were the kind of fellas who don't blink. Wagner was a shrewd political operator, rounding third base on his third term as mayor. He ticked off the bosses when he cast his lot with the reformers in his 1961 reelection campaign, and thus was always looking over his shoulder. But those guys were all pissants, anyway.... Now, when Robert Kennedy arrived on the scene, that had him spooked. The biggest name in national politics was darkening his doorstep.... A name like that had a built-in constituency... it could become a banner for the Mayor's opponent's to rally around (well, surprise, surprise: they're all enthusiastic supporters of the wannabe Senator).... Not good, said Wagner. There was no stopping Kennedy from getting the Senate seat, but he couldn't let the rival bosses walk off with the state legislature now, could he?

Because control of Albany came with a prize bigger than pride: patronage discretion. A political honeypot of $3.5 million in jobs and expenditures -- that can buy you a lot of support.

The anti-Wagner bosses, heady from their man RFK being elected Senator, wanted Zaretzki and Travia out, and eventually, Bronston and Steingut emerged as their would-be replacements. They had a larger share of the Democratic caucus, but Mayor Wagner still had his votes firmly locked in place. Thus, no one had the necessary support to take control of the chamber.

This went on from December, through January and into early February. Much like today, people sporadically claimed victory or insisted progress was being made... and, much like today, it was mostly wishful thinking. At one point, Mayor Wagner held a press conference accusing the chairman of the state Democratic Party of offering Zaretzki "a bribe at the public expense." Whoa, a bribe? Nobody in this game was a stranger to the backroom quid pro quo (especially not Wagner), and throwing around the 'B' word like that was something you just did not do.

It shook out in the end with Wagner cutting a deal with Rockefeller. If the Governor's Republicans caucused with his Democrats, than they'd support the sales tax hike the administration wanted. And so, a coalition of "Rocky-crats" and "Wagner-fellers" elected Zaretzki and Travia.

It was disappointing for the losers -- the friggin' majority of the Democratic caucus -- but it turned out OK. Once in control, Zaretzki and Travia became fiercer opponents of the Governor, passing bills that Rockefeller either had to sign and hurt his chances at the '68 GOP presidential nomination, or veto and hurt his 1966 reelection prospects.

Which leads to the nut of my argument on why 2009 is so much worse. The leadership stalemate of 1965 occurred at the start of the session, when bill expiration deadlines weren't looming. The 2009 session was at its most critical stage when it fell into disarray. Pedro Espada's defection (facilitated by Hiram Monserrate) flushed months of hard-fought negotiations and legislative footwork down the toilet. And with today's inaction, it seems New York City and other local governments will lose millions in revenue already budgeted for. It's telling that the Republican-plus-Espada half of the state Senate is insisting that resolving the current crisis requires an agreement guaranteeing their shared power through 2010, because it would be too disruptive if someone switched allegiances.... Ya think?

Because right now, power in the New York state Senate rests in the hands of one lowly member (helped by a Republican caucus willing to indulge him). Pedro Espada betrayed the Democrats who elected him and threw state government into disarray for no other reason than to put himself next in line to the governor's mansion. On the morning Espada appeared to make his coup official, I was on my way to interview a former New York politico, a big mover in the 1970s. I informed him that Espada was now a heartbeat away from the governorship and he told me a simple rule of New York politics: "If someone is given the opportunity to increase his power, he will take it, every time. No question."

Mayor Wagner was a giant, as was Rockefeller and as were Wagner's rival bosses. Win or lose, they'd live to fight another day.... Now a guy like Espada? Hardly. Same with the Republican caucus, whose competitive Senate numbers are going the way of the buffalo.... Which is why they can't afford to give up, which is why this will drag on and which is why 2009 is a lot worse than 1965.

*The original anti-Wagner candidate for Senate majority leader was Julian Erway, but he faded early in January and Bronston was the pick for the most contentious part of the leadership battle.