Espada, a Democrat from the Bronx, had helped set this crazy chain of events into motion on June 8 by defecting to vote the Republicans into control of the State Senate—with Espada installed as Senate president, a heartbeat away from becoming governor. One week later, Senator Hiram Monserrate undefected back to the Democrats, effectively creating a tie between the parties. Fulmination and stasis have ruled ever since. He’s also skeptical about the spine of his new allies. “My Republican friends were in power for 40 years,” Espada says. “They don’t know how to do this, to engage in a street fight, to deal with this on the ground.” Espada knows how. He’s been scrapping since he was 16 and homeless. Now, at the age of 55, he is a sturdy five foot six and a meticulous dresser, dandily matching his pocket square with his tie.
Pedro Espada has been cast as the prime villain in the Albany mess—and he’s giving an amazing performance in a role he loves. Politics more than ever is a blood sport, and Espada, a former boxer, relishes playing the toughest guy in the room. If collateral damage is the 1.1 million kids in the city’s public-school system, or the thousands of tenants whose rents will soar, well that’s too bad. Espada has scores to settle.
He is not, however, without redeeming qualities: Espada, the founder of a network of medical centers, has delivered badly needed health care to his constituents. He raised $300,000 for a man struck by a subway train. And he has a dark charisma that complements his shrewd tactical mind. He needs all those skills. Espada has been dogged by investigations for more than ten years and is currently being scrutinized by both state attorney general Andrew Cuomo and Bronx district attorney Robert Johnson, who are trying to determine whether Espada violated campaign-finance laws and whether he actually lives in the Bronx district he represents. “He’s a little bit like Evita Perón,” says Liz Krueger, a Democratic state senator from Manhattan’s East Side. “Espada is always saying he’s ‘of the people,’ but he’s been stealing from the people as long as he’s been in office.”
Espada isn’t solely to blame for the Albany calamity. He’s being used by the Republicans, who are fighting a desperate rearguard action to hold on to power in the face of ominous electoral demographic changes, and by the powerful real-estate lobby, which is fending off regulatory reforms that would cost it millions.
Espada is also a product of a Bronx political culture where elected office is treated as a family fiefdom (a concept that’s not geographically or ethnically limited, of course) and multiple politicians are under investigation or indictment. He’s a creature, too, of an Albany system in which a handful of leaders have long dominated the real decision-making, so individual members grew adept at splitting up the spoils. Plus the Democrats are incompetent.
But Espada is a willing tool, and he’s an extreme example of the self-dealing dysfunction. He’s exploiting a particularly fraught moment, when Albany’s old leadership system has broken down and allowed legislators rare autonomy—which they’ve used to fight, endlessly, among themselves. And he’s taken a legitimate problem—the underrepresentation of Latino voters—and twisted it to his own purposes. “Pedro has no moral center whatsoever,” one Bronx Democrat says. “There is a fundamental difference between negotiating policy issues and horse-trading within the rules. Pedro is not within the rules. This is about self-aggrandizement. For him, this is about ‘What do I need?’ ”