Will Gay Marriage Cost Dems the NY Senate?

Since election day, a great deal of attention has been focused on California, and the rifts exposed among Democrats by Proposition 8. Supporters of gay marriage have attacked several groups — including African Americans who traditionally vote Democratic — because they supported traditional marriage. But while California provides an interesting demonstration of Democratic divisions over gay marriage, it is not the only one. We should also look to New York, where the fight over gay marriage may cost Democrats control of the State Senate.

On election day, New York Democrats achieved a goal they have been after for decades: they won a majority of the seats in the State Senate. After securing a majority, it seemed only a formality that they would elect a Democrat as President of the Senate, giving the party unified control of the Legislature and the governorship.

But instead Democratic leader Malcolm Smith has been forced to negotiate with three Democratic dissidents, who have tried to extort concessions from the Democratic leader before offering him their support. Smith eventually made a deal to earn their support — agreeing to make one of the dissidents Majority Leader, to put a second in charge of the Finance Committee, and promising not to bring up legislation to legalize gay marriage in the state. But while the first two concessions met with little resistance, the last one ignited a firestorm, and Smith had to back out of the deal. He subsequently declared that negotiations had ended, and dared the dissidents to make good on their threat:

Sen. Malcolm Smith of St. Albans ended talks yesterday with three rebel Democratic senators, saying their demands for promotions and legislation were unseemly. Without the trio’s support, however, Smith won’t be elected Senate chief and Republicans could remain in power.

Democrats will have a two-seat majority when the Senate organizes on Jan. 7.

The dissident Democrats – Ruben Diaz Sr. and Pedro Espada Jr., of the Bronx, and Carl Kruger of Brooklyn – struck a pact last week with Smith in the presence of Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat.

They agreed Smith would be temporary Senate president in exchange for Espada becoming majority leader, Kruger heading the finance committee, rule changes to empower rank-and-file senators and putting off a vote on same-sex marriage – a key demand of Diaz’s.

But the arrangement infuriated other Democrats who endorse Smith. The party recently won control of the legislature’s upper chamber for the first time in 43 years. The rebels then were angered Monday when Smith backed away from the deal.

This would be a run-of-the-mill power play if not for the injection of the gay marriage issue. State Senator Ruben Diaz is a Minister for whom gay marriage is a top issue; he and his staff have been deluged with angry calls from the gay community — many of them threatening. Such treatment can only make it more difficult for him to return to the Democratic caucus.

Smith’s retreat on his deal must also be galling — and he’s now facing the worst of both worlds. He’s angered the gay community by throwing them under the bus, and now his clumsy dealing may cost his Democratic colleagues control of the chamber — and the perks that brings.

Smith apparently realized that it was a tactical mistake to tell his Democratic colleagues that he was throwing in the towel; he has since promised that he will have a majority lined up when the Senate convenes next year. He has recently begun searching for Republican party-switchers, and is even trying to negotiate a deal with his Republican counterpart.

What happens next? Who knows. But the very fact that this dispute is still going on — six weeks after election day — is worthy of note.