After a doting press conference and an unofficial show of hands from his colleagues, state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D St. Albans) is officially Queens’ latest political star.
On the steps of City Hall last Thursday, Smith announced that his fellow Democrats had selected him to replace David Paterson as their leader in the Senate. In a grand show of unity, Democrats ranging from Southeast Queens political power broker Archie Spigner to Congressmen Charles Rangel and Gregory Meeks cheered on Smith as he spoke of his plans to help win the Senate for the Democrats in 2008.
“In 2008, the mandate is the majority, and this senator, Malcolm Smith, is going to make sure that happens,” he said.
While Smith focused his brief public remarks on Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, he took time afterward to discuss his legislative agenda. Among the new leader’s priorities are securing the education funding due the city from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit and increased health care coverage.
Smith also fully endorsed gay marriage, clarifying his previous comments on the issue. “I support it. Everyone deserves the same rights and protections as me and my wife,” he said during an interview in what will become his new minority leader office across the street from City Hall.
Hours earlier in the same office, Smith received the votes of all 27 members of the Democratic conference, culminating months of behind the scenes negotiations by Smith, Paterson and Congressman Joseph Crowley, chairman of the Queens County Democratic Organization.
Smith topped five other candidates by lining up 10 votes on his own, including Shirley Huntley, who recently defeated Sen. Ada Smith, of Jamaica, in the Democratic primary and is expected to be elected the area’s new senator in November. Crowley then delivered the remaining three Queens votes—Sens. John Sabini, George Onorato, and Toby Stavisky. Paterson, who is favored to become lieutenant governor as the running mate of gubernatorial front runner Eliot Spitzer, also used his influence to push votes to Smith.
The vote may have swung in his favor when Huntley won her primary election against Ada Smith. Huntley shares many of the same political allies as Malcolm Smith, including Spigner, Meeks and former Congressman Rev. Floyd Flake.
Ada Smith, on the other hand, has never been close with Malcolm Smith. Once he had a majority of the votes, his rivals—who included Eric Schneiderman of Manhattan and Martin Dilan of Brooklyn—endorsed him.
At his victory speech on Thursday, Smith went out of his way to acknowledge Crowley and Michael Reich, executive secretary of the Queens County Democratic Organization, for their roles in his ascendancy. He addressed Crowley directly, praising him for his leadership while invoking the name of recently deceased county leader Tom Manton.
“I know for a fact that Tom Manton is smiling this day and that he is proud of what you have done in pulling together this entire operation,” he said.
Smith will not assume his new post until after an official vote is held following the general election on Nov. 7. At that point, he will take over a position with little power but significant potential. The minority leader plays a role in shaping his own party’s legislative agenda, but is handicapped in his ability to get legislation to the floor because of the Republican majority.
If the Democrats win a majority in the senate, Smith, as their leader, would become one of the three most powerful men in Albany, alongside the governor and Assembly speaker. Even if the Democrats fail, Smith thinks the position will become increasingly meaningful if Spitzer and Paterson win in November.
“Having a Democratic governor and David Paterson as lieutenant governor gives a different spin on our ability to be involved.”