State Sen. Malcolm Smith leaves federal court in White Plains...

State Sen. Malcolm Smith leaves federal court in White Plains after being arraigned on fraud and bribery charges. (April 2, 2013) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

ALBANY -- In four short years, state Sen. Malcolm Smith's career path has hurtled like a roller coaster across the New York political scene.

The Queens politician, who was accused Tuesday of trying to bribe his way onto the New York City mayoral ballot, came out of relative obscurity to become one of the three most powerful men in state government in 2009 -- the first black majority leader of the State Senate.

Over the next few years, Smith (D-Hollis) lost power in an unprecedented political coup, became the lightning rod for an investigation into a state gambling contract, and made himself a player again by allying with renegade Democrats and 30 Republicans to form a new governing coalition in the Senate.

Along the way, prosecutors say, he tried to become the GOP candidate for New York City mayor in a scheme to buy his way onto the ballot by paying off Republican leaders.

Smith, who represents southeast Queens, earned a bachelor's degree at Fordham University in the Bronx and a master's degree at Adelphi University in Garden City. He worked as a real estate developer before getting into politics.

He won a special Senate election in March 2000 and was a rank-and-file legislator for the next six years. In 2006, then-Democratic leader David A. Paterson was elected lieutenant governor. Smith succeeded him by upsetting other more veteran senators -- including current Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

Democrats won control of the Senate in fall 2008 and, when they took power in January 2009, Smith became the first African-American Senate majority leader in state's history. His leadership lasted six months.

Four Democrats, citing Smith as a problem, joined with the Republicans to throw the Senate into chaos and court battles. Eventually, the renegades returned but insisted that Smith no longer lead the Democrats.

"Many thought his mismanagement led to the coup," said a former ally, although noting that others said the renegades bolted for personal gain. After Democrats made peace, Smith retained the title of Senate president but ceded actual control.

In 2010, Smith and other Senate Democrats were harshly criticized in a state inspector general's report that said they manipulated the selection of a contractor to run video slot machines at Aqueduct Racetrack. No charges have been filed, but the case is reportedly still under investigation.

Last December, Smith regained some degree of sway. He joined the "Independent Democratic Conference," which made a pact with Republicans to form a "majority coalition" to run the Senate -- angering mainline Democrats. Smith was named IDC chairman, a title he lost Tuesday.

"These are very serious allegations that, if true, constitute a clear betrayal of the public trust," said Senate co-leader Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), who installed Smith as IDC chairman. "As a result of these charges, I have made the decision to strip Senator Smith of his committee assignments and of his conference leadership position."

Klein said Smith should consider stepping down but that might not prevent blowback. Smith's fall could tarnish the IDC, which had branded itself as putting pragmatism above politics as usual, observers said.

"It's a disaster for them -- the fact that one of them would be basically accused of a form of corruption," said Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University political scientist. "I think they have some explaining to do and at least one of them is going to be out of the picture."

With Joan Gralla

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