State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) defended his decision to join the Independent Democratic Caucus at a packed town hall meeting in Cambria Heights on Jan. 30 at the Alpha Phi Alpha Senior Center.
But activist, minister the Rev. Charles Norris was not satisfied with the explanation being offered, and the exchange between the two became heated. Smith accused Norris of seeking media attention. Norris called Smith a bad senator before the lawmaker cut him off and abruptly ended the meeting.
Smith said his decision to join the IDC was not an easy one, but being in a leadership position in the new coalition with Senate Republicans is necessary to best serve his newly redrawn district, which now includes the majority of Southeast Queens.
“The decision was — Do I not be a part of a coalition that would allow me to have influence and input over the important things that affects the district that has elected me to represent them or do I sit on the sidelines,” Smith explained. “I can tell you as an individual who has held basically every single leadership position in the state, I know what you have to do and where you need to place yourself to be affective.”
Smith noted his past positions in government. He was the first African-American president of the state Senate in its history, the first black majority leader of the Senate, acting lieutenant governor of the state and governor for a day.
“There is actually very little that I don’t know about the New York State Senate and what you can do if you are in the position of power and authority,” Smith said. “When you elect somebody to office, your primary responsibility is representing the district that elected you and being able to deliver services. When one cannot deliver services, you have no need for that individual and it is time for them to step aside.”
Midway through the meeting Norris told Smith that he would like to make a statement, but the lawmaker told him he would have to wait until the end. From the beginning of their exchange, it was clear that there were existing tensions.
“We’ll get to your statement, or you can make your statement to the press because I know that’s what you like to do, or you could meet me outside,” Smith said.
This is not the first time the two have butted heads. Norris called on Smith to resign over the IDC move at a Community Board 12 meeting the two attended on Dec. 12. It was that confrontation and Norris’ insistence that Smith explain his decision that prompted the lawmaker to hold the town hall meeting. Another is scheduled to be held on Feb. 6 at the Harvest Room in Jamaica.
Smith took another jab at Norris at the end of the meeting before the pastor began reading a prepared statement opposing Smith’s IDC move.
“This is Rev. Norris’ moment,” Smith said. “He wants to do this to get on camera and everything, so let him have his moment.”
Norris began by noting that records show Smith gave $5,000 to the pastor’s organization, Clergy United for Community Empowerment.
“That must be a mistake, because you never gave us anything,” Norris said.
Smith did not respond to the accusation.
Next Norris panned the senator for choosing what he considered a small venue, which led to many residents having to stand up, while others were left to wait outside.
“Senator Malcolm Smith, in my estimation, you have been a bad senator,” Norris said, reading from his prepared statement.
But Smith cut him off before he could continue.
“I’m not going to sit here and entertain you, having a long conversation — you want to talk to me privately about who I am, that’s fine,” Smith said. “That is not the purpose of this meeting.”
Norris agreed that Smith had explained his position, but he took issue with the fact that the lawmaker didn’t ask anyone how they felt about his answer. Smith said people could have asked questions about it, but they didn’t
Norris tried to press the issue and Smith told him that had already spent two hours discussing matters with Norris at a prior meeting, which Norris said was not true and then he asked Smith if he was calling him a liar.
At that point Smith abruptly ended things.
“Ladies and gentleman, thank you very much,” he said. “The meeting has come to an end.”
There were police officers stationed outside the meeting. Asked if they were there in case of a potential altercation between Smith and Norris, the senator’s spokeswoman, Tai White, said that they were not.
“They were just there because of the large crowd that was expected so they could help with crowd control if necessary,” White said in an email.
The IDC welcomed Smith, the fifth renegade Democrat to split from the main party and join the group, which has kept power in the Senate with the GOP.
The IDC is led by Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) and its other members are Sens. David Carlucci (D-Rockland-Orange), Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) and David Valesky (D-Oneida).
The move — along with reports that said he might run for mayor as a Republican — prompted some to question whether Smith had changed parties. He vehemently denied any claims that he was now a member of the GOP.
“Malcolm is not a Republican,” Smith said. “Malcolm is a Democrat, born and bred. Over time you will recognize my decision was one of the best for our community. Was it an easy decision? No.”
But it allowed him to obtain some choice committee assignments giving him the opportunity to have a say on issues such as the distribution of capital funding, employment, legislation and school closures.
He is the vice chairman of the Finance committee, co-chairman of the Sandy task force, chairman of the Social Services Committee and is also a member of several other committees —Transportation, Judiciary, Codes, Housing Construction and Community Development, Environmental Conservation, Education and a newly formed subcommittee on city education that will oversee teacher evaluations, charter schools, school closures and overcrowding.
Smith talked about the importance of being able to have a say in the spending of Sandy relief money, especially since the Rockaways and other parts of Southeast Queens, which are now in his newly redrawn district, were so heavily affected.
“As a young man from Southeast Queens who grew up poor, who didn’t know much, who rode bicycles delivering groceries, when I sat in that room and they talked about spending hundreds of millions of dollars like it was 5 cents, I knew life for me had changed,” Smith said. “I knew I was in a place where I was going to fight for my community and I was going to be able to fight for what we needed.”