On paper, he had the résumé to run for mayor. Malcolm Smith is a state senator from Queens, and as the former majority leader was the first African-American to lead a legislative body in Albany.
New York’s financial and real estate elite were fretting about the fate of the city post Mayor Mike Bloomberg, particularly since the handful of Democrats vying to replace him were competing for support from Gotham’s left-leaning labor unions. Smith was a real-estate developer who seemed to speak their language. And he was a life-long Democrat willing to switch sides if the GOP bigwigs would back him for a run for a mayor. In a city where whites make up a diminishing minority, Malcolm Smith looked like he might be the Republican Party’s best chance to continue their two-decade-long hold on City Hall.
Tuesday morning he was hauled away from his home by federal agents, charged in a lurid bribery scheme to buy off the city’s five county GOP chairmen in order to run for mayor of New York City on the Republican line. Smith has yet to publicly respond to the charges, though he has steadfastly maintained his innocence in previous criminal investigations (more on those in a moment), that did not lead to charges being pressed.
His arrest along with several alleged confederates, including several Republican county party leaders, marks what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called a “sad and disappointing day,” as he charged the group with attempting a pay-to-play scheme as brazen as any concocted for what is often called “the second toughest job in America.” According to the complaint, Smith told an undercover agent in a meeting at Grand Central Station to fork over tens of thousands of dollars to the local Republican powerbrokers intended to glide his way into City Hall: “You pull this off, you can have the house,” he told them. “I'll be the tenant."
For anyone who knew Smith beyond what he puts on his CV, the possibility that he would move his family into Gracie Mansion was as laughable as the disgraced pol’s once promising career in public life. Smith got his start in the precincts of southeastern Queens, a mostly black middle and working class neighborhood as far from the city center as parts of Connecticut, and where a culture of corruption seems to run deep. A lawmaker from a neighboring district there pled guilty to embezzling $87,000 from a phony nonprofit. Gregory Meeks, the longtime congressman and a Smith protégé, has repeatedly found himself named as one of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics list of Congress’s most corrupt members, and the duo were already reportedly under federal investigation for setting up a charity for victims of Hurricane Katrina that paid out only a tiny fraction of the money raised. Both lawmakers have denied any wrongdoing related to the charity. In 2010, Smith helped steer a sought-after contract to operate a new casino in Queens to a group backed by the Rev. Floyd Flake, a highly connected political powerbroker in southeast Queens and something of a mentor to the lawmaker. That contract— which Smith reportedly referred to as his “golden parachute” for whenever he left the state senate, was later canceled, and a blistering report by the state inspector general on the deal was referred to the feds for potential prosecution. Smith, Meeks, and Flake have all denied any wrongdoing.
“The surprising thing is that he seemed to find every form of bribery and graft available to him—straw donors, discretionary funds, ballot access,” said one Democratic operative as news of the latest alleged scandal emerged on Tuesday. “But the fact that Malcolm Smith is involved—that is not surprising in the least.”
Smith was next in line when the Democrats took control of the New York State Senate, ending a 40-year drought and bringing one-party rule to Albany. But from the start, Smith, whose garish suits, perfectly folded pocket square and cleanly parted hairstyle looked like something out of a Dick Tracy comic strip, proved ill-adept to the job. On inauguration day, he openly wept when he thanked his wife—a reference to the fact that he had recently copped to fathering a child with a former aide. He was wildly non-specific on what Democrats were expected to do now that they had captured the majority, and a few months into his first term as Senate majority leader, a handful of Democrats crossed the aisle in a legislative coup, snarling state government for several days.
Order was only restored when Smith stepped down. One former Senate aide said that his only memory of Smith’s tenure was the banal, insipid, inspirational statements that he had faxed to the offices of Democratic senators each week—lines like “You can’t see the mountaintop but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there”—missives that came like clockwork, even as the rest of state government was crumbling on his watch.
In December, after Democrats won control of the state senate for the first time in 60 years, Smith joined a small group of “independent Democrats” who crossed party lines to caucus with the Republicans, infuriating their legislative peers and many voters and effectively giving Republicans control of the chamber. In exchange, the “independent Democrats” were given positions of political power and valuable perks, including big raises for their staff members. Smith was stripped of his committee assignments and conference leadership positions on Tuesday, following his arrest.
Everyone who knows Smith says that his slow, steady rise up the political ranks was fueled by two things—a genuine likability, capped by a 10,000 kilowatt smile, and a willingness to always be making a deal. Reading over the 28-page complaint, that is the overwhelming impression: even when it seemed remarkably unlikely that the Republican Party would rent out its mayoral line to a lifelong Democrat trying to shuffle off a series of federal investigations, he never stopped hustling. When it seemed to him the county chairmen were delaying, he’d ask if they needed more money, or help with a real estate deal from his office.
“He’s smooth, likable, but to me he seemed like a guy always one step away from being arrested,” said one Democratic operative. “Even when he was arrested, even when he did the perp walk, he still was wearing a crisp, perfect suit. You could tell he knew he needed to look good before the cameras.”
In a statement, the FBI decried a culture in which public service had become “a shortcut to self-enrichment” and accusing Smith of trying “to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion.”
In 2008, just as he was struggling to keep of his new post in the State Senate, Smith told a reporter he wasn’t worried at all about his ability to do the job.
“It’s all about knowing people, and knowing what their needs are, what drives them,” he said then. “Politics is business. Business is politics.”