The dissident Democrat who joined Republicans last week to upend his party’s control of New York’s Senate said yesterday that his vanquished colleagues are using racist attacks to discredit him and retake majority control. Sen. Pedro Espada, a Latino from the Bronx, said automated, recorded telephone messages known as robo-calls were telling New Yorkers in predominantly white districts that their white senator was consorting with a “criminal.” In the standoff’s turbulent 11th day, the Democratic conference returned to court yesterday. Democrats asked a judge to issue a temporary restraining order prohibiting Espada from assuming any duties of the Senate president, including being next in the line of succession to the governor and voting twice – as a senator and Senate president – to establish a quorum.Late yesterday, Democrats said they withdrew the request in a state appellate court, but Republicans and Democrats dispute why it was withdrawn. Democrats may still appeal another state judge’s decision on Tuesday to reject the Democrats’ request to intervene in the dispute and invalidate the coalition’s overthrow.
Espada and the Senate’s 30 Republicans maintain they elected him president on June 8 in a shocking parliamentary overthrow.
The Democratic conference’s legal action also sought to prohibit Espada from trying to vote twice — once as a senator, once as Senate president — which he said would get the Senate back to work after nearly two weeks of inaction forced by a Democratic boycott.
In an interview earlier Thursday, Espada said the robo-calls paid for by the state Democratic Senate Campaign Committee went to mostly white districts that elected white Republican senators. Espada said they referred to him as a “Bronx Democrat,” which he said in that context made it clear he was a minority seeking control of the predominantly white Senate.
Committee spokesman Shams Tarek denied the calls were racist and said they were statewide.
“I have a problem with my Democratic colleagues, the so-called, self-acclaimed progressives, playing the Latino race card,” Espada said. “It’s divisive. But for my own party to engage in that I think is despicable because it’s always been their attack line on Republicans so there is no need to start borrowing from the gutter to win this contest.”
The calls said Espada is indicted. He isn’t, but was indicted in 1998 on campaign finance charges that were dismissed. The calls also say his campaign was convicted of stealing from the elderly to pay for his campaigns. Some workers were convicted, but no charges were filed against Espada.
Espada still hasn’t settled two pending election violation cases and is caught up in a state attorney general’s investigation into a health clinic he founded. Meanwhile, the Bronx district attorney is examining whether Espada lives in his Bronx apartment or in a house outside New York City, which the senator says is a second home.
“To call Senator Espada indicted is completely true and accurate because he was, in fact, indicted,” Tarek said. “The date of his indictment and the outcome of his indictment do not change the fact that he was indicted.”
Olean Republican Sen. Catharine Young said she spoke with several constituents who support her and the coalition that includes Espada.
When asked if the pressure would be effective in dividing Republicans and Espada, Young said, “Not a chance, because we are committed to reforming the Senate and changing the direction of the state.”
The coalition convened Thursday in the Senate, but didn’t have a quorum of 32 senators. On the Senate floor, Republicans called Espada courageous and a true reformer.
“This is dereliction of duty,” said Republican Sen. William Larkin of Orange County, gesturing to the 31 empty Democratic seats. The retired Army colonel called Espada “a brave soldier.”
In the meantime, bills on sales tax, school control and other pressing issues aren’t being passed for local governments statewide, including New York City.
The Senate gridlock started June 8, when Espada and Queens Sen. Hiram Monserrate, both Democrats, joined Republicans to vote Democrats out of power and elect Espada president of the Senate and Republican Sen. Dean Skelos, of Long Island, majority leader. Monserrate has since rejoined Democrats, leaving a 31-31 tie.
In closed-door discussions with leaders of the Democratic conference, Skelos said he won’t bargain away control of the top two posts.
“There is no splitting up of this coalition,” Espada said.