New York State is not a representative democracy. After the 1980 census, Democratic and Republican leaders agreed that the State Senate districts would be drawn up to ensure a Republican majority and State Assembly districts would be drawn up to ensure a Democratic majority. That system is still in place, but it is beginning to fray since the state has become so overwhelmingly Democratic that there is almost no way to gerrymander things enough to get a Republican majority in the Senate. To make up for this, politically endangered Republican Senators are given large “member item” budgets — that other members don’t get — to buy votes with. Buying votes here means funding various worthy projects: libraries, jazz festivals, and a new arty bus stop are the three things my Rochester-area Republican State Senators are always bragging about (“liberal” projects make constituents happy because the constitutents are liberal).
The Speaker of the Assembly and the Majority Leader of the Senate are all-powerful. They determine committee assignments, which determine salaries, as well as perks like parking spots and office size. There are stories of legislators returning to their office after voting against their leader’s wishes and finding that the locks have been changed and that the power has been cut. A lower percentage of bills are debated on the floor in New York State than in any other state. A lot of this is detailed in the Brennan Report and in a book called “Three Men In A Room” (the three men being the governor, the Speaker of the Assembly, and the Majority Leader of the Senate). I once called my Assemblywoman to ask her to vote against the bond issue for the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn and was told that no one in the office had heard of the issue. I later read that, somehow, it didn’t require a vote from the Assembly or Senate, that Shelly Silver (Speaker), Joe Bruno (then Senate Majority Leader), and George Pataki (then governor) passed it without input from the actual legislative bodies.
What happened with the New York State Senate coup, as near as I can tell, is that billionaire Tom Golisano decided he wanted to be the fourth man in the room:
Mr. Golisano, a billionaire business executive, had spent heavily to help Mr. Smith and other Democrats win control of the Senate in the November election, and was angry to hear they were now planning to raise taxes on the wealthy. He expected an audience befitting a major financial patron.
Instead, he said, Mr. Smith played with his BlackBerry and seemed to barely listen.
“I said, ‘I’m talking to the wall here,’ ” Mr. Golisano recalled in an interview on Tuesday.
That meeting led to the dramatic collapse Monday of the Democrats’ grip on the Senate majority as a frustrated Mr. Golisano secretly planned with Republicans to persuade two Democrats to join them in ousting Mr. Smith.
The whole Times article I excerpted from is worth a read. It mentions the possible role of swinger/Brooks Brother rioteer Roger Stone in the caper. And it explains that the two Democratic Senators who who left the party did so for financial reasons.
The big issue on the horizon here is redistricting in 2012. Under anything but the most ridiculous gerrymander, Democrats will win a large majority of seats in the State Senate under the new redistricting. Of course, they are likely to gerrymander themselves to make it even larger if they can, but personally I am hoping for the districts to be drawn by a nonpartisan panel. There’s a chance Democrats will agree to that — since they’d have large majorities under it anyway — but very little chance that Republicans would.