Commentary: The Sad Saga of Malcolm Smith

A New York state senator, arrested for trying to rig the 2013 mayoral election, has a troublesome political history.

Posted: 04/03/2013 12:04 PM EDT

Walking into a ceremony celebrating the inauguration of a United States congressman in Brooklyn earlier this year, New York State Senator Malcolm A. Smith, a Democrat from Queens and one of New York’s most influential African-American legislators, was asked about a tangled alliance he made with Republicans in the state capital of Albany that enabled him to gain considerable power and influence.

“You do what you feel you have to do,” he said, speaking to a reporter.

What Smith felt compelled to do has landed him in a harsh spotlight this week. The longtime state senator was arrested for allegedly trying to rig this year’s race for New York City mayor by paying Republican leaders to endorse him. Because Smith is a Democrat, he would have to gain the endorsement of the Republican leaders in New York City’s five boroughs in order to run on that party’s ticket.

Smith has denied any wrongdoing in a case where several other New York City political figures were also arrested. But there are certain aspects of the senator’s political history that are highly troublesome.

If nothing else, Smith is guilty of a brazen and unprincipled attempt to gain influence and remain politically relevant at any cost.

Just a few months ago, Smith, a former Democratic leader in the State Senate, joined forces with the Republicans in that body to form what they called the “bipartisan governing coalition” to run the Senate. The move by Smith and some fellow Democrats prevented his longtime party from taking control even after it appeared to have won a majority of Senate seats.

This was an alliance that was not based on a burning desire to create a more efficient way of getting things done in Albany. It is hardly a method of propelling forward the kind of progressive agenda that his constituents would appreciate. Instead, it was a way for some elected officials to gain stature, influence and perks by turning their backs on the party – and the constituencies – who have supported their very careers in the first place.

For Smith, the alliance meant turning a cold shoulder toward the thousands of Democratic voters and foot soldiers who have long carried his petitions and voted for him while he embraced the party of Rudolph W. Giuliani. As a reward for his newfound loyalty to the GOP, Smith was able to get some choice committee assignments and a higher amount of funding to hire staff -- the contemporary legislative equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.

The allegations against Smith of the past week, if true, reveal not just an unquenchable thirst for influence and power, but also a more than slight tendency toward the delusional. It is hard to conceive of a world in which this African-American state senator from southeast Queens would emerge victorious in a citywide Republican primary, let alone win a mayoral race against any one of a set of far better-known Democratic candidates.

The coming weeks will produce more drama for Smith and his fellow defendants. There will be calls for him to step down from his Senate seat and for him to discuss his views on the charges leveled against him. In the meantime, New Yorkers will be treated once again to a sad scandal in an unhappy mess that will not provide any benefit whatsoever for his constituents, who deserve better.

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(Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for European School of Economics Foundation)

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