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Queens State Senator Takes Aim at Majority

Thursday, October 30, 2008

While all eyes are on the historic presidential election next week, the New York State Senate may be making big news of its own. The Democrats are two seats shy of seizing the majority and if they do, they will have control for the first time in four decades.

REPORTER: As a result, another New York City politician, State Senator Malcolm Smith of Queens will move into a more powerful position as Majority Leader. He'll join two other downstate politicians - Governor David Paterson and Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver - who'll make up the "three men in the room" to run Albany. WNYC's Elaine Rivera reports:

Lyndon Johnson was president the last time New York Democrats controlled the state Senate. Republicans have held the chamber since 1965 but this year several tightly contested races around the state may end their rule. With an ailing economy and thousands of new registered voters trending Democratic, Democrats are now confident.

SMITH: Today we are here to tell you they have seven days left of the 40 years that they were there - Senate Democrats will then take charge, and we are ready, we are prepared and we will take the action that will make each and everyone of you proud to say you are residents of the greatest state of this country...

REPORTER: That's Malcolm Smith who was selected by his peers in March to be senate minority leader when Paterson became governor. He held a press conference this week with Democratic officials from around the state to announce that it's their turn now.

If Democrats were to win, Smith will lead the majority. A native son of southeast Queens, Smith explains why he's confident the Democrats will take over - he along with Governor David Paterson - the former minority leader - have been working for a longtime to have the majority.

SMITH: We are clearly putting resources in there financial resources we have tremendous amount of support that's coming from advocacy groups, outside of the district within the district from Washington we have support coming from around the country I mean this is very critical for Democrats around the state as it is nationally....

REPORTER: The 52-year-old Smith's ascension in the legislature began eight years ago when he won the state senate seat in the 14th district in Southeast Queens where he grew up. It is a district that includes one of the city's largest African American middle class neighbourhoods along with bustling small businesses. It's also home to the Rev. Floyd Flake, the influential pastor of the AME mega church. A former congressman, Flake has served as a mentor to Smith. Citing the current mantra among politicians, Flake says Smith does not have a personal agenda and would be a bipartisan leader.

FLAKE: I think the kind of leadership you would get is a very evenhanded kind of approach because his capability to reach out across the aisle and work with both parties I think is exemplary his personality is so well balanced that he does not become demagogic on one side of the issue

REPORTER: Smith is the first in his family to go to college. He has strong community roots In Queens and says it was his family that helped pave the way for him.

SMITH: My mother was very involved in the local politics of my neighbourhood she was as we call it a workaholic for the local democratic party in queens and she was the secretary to the club always told me besides my Jesuit education that it was always important to give back and fulfill your purpose in life....

REPORTER: Before his foray as an elected official, Smith worked for both former Mayor Ed Koch and former congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, In 1985 he launched a program to increase the number of minority-owned banks in the city. He also started his own real estate development company in the basement of his Queens home with $2,000. He says that experience as a businessman helped provide the discipline he would need as a politician.

SMITH: I built homes and baseball fields and was involved with medical facilities and it was hard it wasn't easy but there's nothing more understanding of a person's life and what they been through when you have to meet a payroll...

REPORTER: Smith's work in the Southeastern Queens community has brought accolades from constituents. Parishioners Sollis Wilson, Faye Hill and Jean Estwick attend Flake's church where Smith continues to worship. They have only praise for him.

WILSON: He's doing a lot for the community he's always here at church and he's a nice individual I would give him my vote anytime

HILL: I'm a community advocate. I belong to a lot of community organizations where he has come and represented us and given us a lot of funding

ESTWICK: He always answers my request and I think he's a great senator and I think he should be able to handle any position going forward

REPORTER: However, there's grumbling among upstate Senators that Smith should not get the leadership post if the balance of power swings. Some insiders contend that the three most powerful men in Albany should not all be from New York City.

Longtime political consultant George Arzt says the Democrats could hurt themselves if they try to appoint someone else.

ARZT: It's crazy for the Democrats to have a civil war to prove to everyone how contentious they are - it would show Democrats at their worse

REPORTER: As for Smith, Arzt says:

ARZT: I think he's smart, he's been a legislator a long time and I think he'll take the Senate into a lot of areas into a lot of areas that they haven't previously been in...

REPORTER: And if Barack Obama wins, he won't be the only one to make history by becoming the first black president. If Smith wins the Majority Leader post, he'll be the first African American to do so in New York history. For WNYC, I'm Elaine Rivera

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