On Monday afternoon, State Senator Pedro Espada, Jr. and a Democratic colleague, Hiram Monserrate of Queens, voted with the Republican Party to overthrow the Senate’s Democratic leadership.

The stunning development is likely to have myriad implications in Albany and across the state.

Espada and Monserrate’s defection means the Republicans now control the Senate, and the Democrats — after just five months in power — are apparently once again the minority party, though lawsuits are expected.

Malcolm Smith, the ousted majority leader, immediately denounced the coup. “This was an illegal and unlawful attempt to gain control of the Senate and reverse the will of the people who voted for a Democratic Majority,” Smith’s office said in a statement. “Nothing has changed… The real Senate Majority is anxious to get back to governing, and will take immediate steps to get us back to work.”

The Republicans, however, have already begun divvying up key positions. Dean G. Skelos (Long Island) will replace Smith as majority leader. Espada, meanwhile, was sworn in Monday afternoon as the Senate’s temporary new president, making him the highest ranking Latino in the state, and second-in-line to the governorship since the lieutenant governor position is currently empty.

The changing of the guard is a blow to David Paterson, the state’s Democratic governor, who’s gearing up for the 2010 election. And it’s likely to have gay marriage advocates throwing their hands up in despair. Last month, the Assembly passed a gay marriage bill, and since then, supporters have been trying push the Senate to vote on a similar measure. With the Republicans back in power, that now seems unlikely. The reauthorization of mayoral control of the city’s public schools and tenant rights legislation passed by the

Assembly also hang in the balance.

Despite turning against Smith, both Espada and Monserrate insisted they were still Democrats, and that the new setup was part of a power-sharing coalition designed to bring reform to Albany.

Espada threatened to side with the Republicans in 2002 when he lost his south Bronx Senate seat for a second time, so perhaps his decision to abandon his fellow Democrats shouldn’t come as a complete surprise.

After winning the general election in the 33rd District last fall, Espada and two other state senators (Ruben Diaz, Sr. and Carl Kruger) infuriated top Democrats when they withheld their support for Democratic leader Malcolm Smith, who was poised to become Senate majority leader, the first time a Democrat would hold that title in Albany in 40 years. Smith eventually cut a deal that gave Espada chairmanship of the Housing Committee and an assignment with the powerful Rules Committee. 

Espada has been in the news repeatedly because of that power play and because he still hasn’t registered his campaign committee or opened a district office. His Soundview Healthcare Network is reportedly under investigation by the state attorney general’s office. 

Monserrate faces his own problems. In March, he was indicted for allegedly slashing his girlfriend in the face with a broken drinking glass. If found guilty, he’ll be forced to relinquish his seat and could face up to seven years in prison.

In reference to the duo’s dubious pasts, Smith’s furious spokesman told that the coup was orchestrated by “a thief and a thug.”

But assuming the Republicans cement their position, and Smith’s threats to sue go nowhere,  Espada will be one of the most powerful men in state government and Senate Democrats will return to the political wilderness where they’ve spent much of the last 40 years.

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