Queens Sen. Malcolm Smith led the Democratic charge to take control of the state Senate after 43 years of Republican rule. That may have been the easy part.
Viewed as a conservative within a liberal-leaning conference, Smith is in line to take over as leader of the new Democratic majority.
He's already facing a challenge from rebel Dems who have threatened to derail his election to the leadership spot.
If he does win, he'll need to hold together a fragile coalition of Democrats as the state grapples with enormous budget deficits and a souring economy.
"Democrats have never been in this position and he's got to prove that he can mold this conference," Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said.
Smith's supporters say the 52-year-old is perfectly suited for the task: a skilled communicator who's adept at bringing lawmakers together.
Elected to the Senate in 2000, Smith became minority leader in November 2006. He has supported Gov. Paterson's drive to cut state spending and argued against raising taxes.
"I expect great things," Flake said of Smith.
Last week, after Democrats won control of the Senate, four Democrats - including three Hispanic lawmakers - initially withheld support from Smith. One of the rogue members, Sen.-elect Hiram Monserrate (D-Queens), announced Saturday he would back Smith.
The others are expected to meet tomorrow to plot an end-game strategy.
"We do not believe at this point, given the way he has conducted himself, that we can vote for him," Sen.-elect Pedro Espada Jr., a Bronx Democrat and member of the insurgent group, said last week.
Espada cited Smith's frequent support from the Conservative Party - Smith ran on the party's line in 2000, 2002 and 2004 - and Smith's endorsement of Mayor Bloomberg over Democrat Fernando Ferrer in 2005 as examples of his "hypocrisy."
Republicans have also challenged Smith's abilities.
When Bloomberg's congestion-pricing plan flopped in Albany, the mayor criticized Smith for not rallying Senate Democrats.
In 2006, the married dad of two was accused of fathering an out-of-wedlock child with a former staffer. Smith said he has settled the paternity suit and is supporting the child.
Smith's real estate business, Smith Development Co., declared bankruptcy in 2001.
He was later sued by the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee, who accused Smith of hiding money from creditors. The case was eventually settled.
In a telephone interview, Smith downplayed the threat from disgruntled Dems, saying the two years he's spent as minority leader proves he's got the chops to hold the group together.
"I did it already, the last two years," Smith said. "That's how I got elected.
"It's more about relationships and it's also understanding individuals. We have a very diverse conference, not a divided conference."
With Kenneth Lovett