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Espada Returns To Democratic Party, Senate Gets Back To Work

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State Senator Pedro Espada Jr. officially returned to the Democratic Party Thursday under the role of Senate majority leader, ending the power struggle which has consumed Albany for more than a month.

Espada's move restores a 32-30 majority to the Democrats, implying that important state legislation can finally be passed.

The announcement was solidified Thursday night, when Espada was voted in as the new leader during a special session. Members then began taking up a backlog of bills that lasted well into the night.

Senate members are expected to return Friday for yet another special session where they could take up some highly-anticipated legislation, including the city's sales tax increase.

At a press conference earlier in the day where jovial Democratic leaders broke into a spontaneous rendition of "Happy Birthday," former Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith announced that Espada, one of the senators who voted on June 8th to oust him from his position, is now his successor.

Smith will retain his position as president pro tempore of the Senate.

State Senator John Sampson is still the Democratic conference leader and after a yet-to-be-determined period of time, he will reportedly take over as Senate president.

Repeatedly, Espada and his former political rivals embraced and said that all 32 members of the Democratic conference have reunited to promote unspecified reforms.

“This was never about titles, June 8, president pro tempore, this or that. It's how we conduct our business and how we improve it,” said Espada. “So today, I stand here with another title. You assign me to the GOP, I tell you really clearly: I have always been a Democrat, I will continue to be a Democrat, I never left home. I had a little leave of absence, my brothers and sisters welcomed me back."

"Democrats have come forward to put the state's business forward," said Smith.

Espada said he did not receive any new stipends or benefits when he settled with the Democrats.

"We needed this exchange. It happened in public and it took too long and I'm sorry," said Espada. "But I am not sorry for the opportunity and the restarting of this engine in the Democratic conference that will bring the Republican conference into a new reality."

As the new senate majority leader, Espada said he would represent inner-city populations.

Espada and State Senator Hiram Monserrate joined the Republican party on June 8th to vote Smith out of office. Monserrate rejoined the Democratic conference a few days later, leaving the State Senate in a power stalemate.

Governor David Paterson said he was happy that the month-long strife was over, but said that he will continue to call special sessions until all of the held-up legislation is passed.

The new Democratic majority was on hold Thursday until Democratic Queens Senator George Onorato, who was in the city recovering from pacemaker trouble, returned to Albany.

Some, however, say the Senate deal is tenuous, as Espada's Senate seat is endangered by several ongoing law enforcement investigations. Also, the majority could collapse if one Democratic senator switches parties.

Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos, who helped lead the June 8 vote, said Espada's decision to return was influenced by Paterson's surprise appointment of Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor.

"[Espada] always indicated that at some point he wanted to go back within that conference, but that would be with enacting all the reforms and resolving different leadership positions," said Skelos. "So it's nothing new. He indicated that he wanted to be able to go back because he's a Democrat."

Skelos also said that Ravitch's appointment was unconstitutional and that the brief Republican-led coalition accomplished reforms at a faster rate than the Democrats.

"This has not been just about power. It was about reform. It continues to be about reform," Skelos said. " And also, we felt as a conference, that we had to do something dramatic to stop the direction that this state was going."

Until last November, Republicans had held the Senate majority for 40 years.

Paterson formally introduced Ravitch Thursday morning, after he was secretly sworn in Wednesday night at a landmark Brooklyn steakhouse.

Paterson claims that it is typical for the swearing-in ceremony to be held in private.

Republicans, unaware of the swearing-in, went to a Nassau County court around midnight and were issued a temporary restraining order, thinking it could prevent the swearing in, which the governor's press people said was scheduled for Thursday morning at 11:30.

"We think that issue is now moot because at the moment the judge signed the order, the oath was already sworn," said Paterson. "Also, the judge was a Nassau County judge and the correct jurisdiction if you're going to sue any state official, is Albany."

Republicans claim the move is unconstitutional, a stance shared by Democratic State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

"The state's lawyer, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, legal scholars and even other elected officials in the governor's own party have said that he does not have an authority under the state Constitution to act as he did," said Republican State Senator Dean Skelos in a statement.

The governor said the impetus in making this assignment was the issue of succession in the event that something would happen to him.

Although the former Metropolitan Transportation Authority could serve as a tiebreaker and a neutral leader of a deadlocked Senate, Paterson had said a power-sharing agreement was still needed.

Ravitch, 75, is well-respected across the state and is credited with guiding the Metropolitan Transportation Authority through a fiscal crisis in the early 1980s as its chairman.

He said he will serve until the end of their terms in 2010 and will not run that year.

The governor acknowledged Wednesday that the move will likely end up in court, but he insisted it's in the state's best interests.

"From one day to the next, the Senate has befuddled us and confused us with, I think, the politics of deception," said the governor. "Where we need to place our focus on right now is why can't these 62 men and women go into the chamber, lay down their arguments, put down their excuses, lay down their weapons, and pass these vital pieces of legislation."

Democrats praised the move, and said they expect to begin passing bills as soon as possible.

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