Politicians and their hired consultants usually have an answer for everything. But one question seems to stump even the savviest New York politicos: How long have the Republicans run the New York State Senate?
“Forever,” ventures Eric Schneiderman, a Democratic state senator from Manhattan and the Bronx. “Since sometime in the 1800s.”
“Since time immemorial,” suggests Norman Adler, a political consultant who works for both Democrats and Republicans.
The jokes are telling. (For the record: Besides a one-year stint in the 1960s, the GOP has ruled since 1939.) Republican control of the Senate has become such a staple of state politics that most accept it as a fixture in Albany, as predictable as foul weather and bad architecture. The Democrats have the Assembly, the Republicans have the Senate, and most politicians are content to live with it.
New York’s divided government allows each party to blame the other for budget boondoggles and legislative stasis. Carefully gerrymandered districts protect incumbents on both sides of the aisle. Few legislators have wanted to upset that balance of power.
But even in Albany, things can change. Republicans have fallen on hard times in Westchester and Nassau, and the GOP’s majority in the 61-seat Senate has been whittled down to a mere six seats.
So Democratic leaders are now making a major push to take over the Senate–a move that could finally get New York City everything from more cash for education and job training programs to better subway service. They have some forces in their favor. For one thing, this is a presidential election year, in which voter turnout will be high–and anticipated to swing largely in favor of Democrat Al Gore. It’s also the final election to be run in districts drawn based on the 1990 census; that is, in districts that have since become more ethnically and culturally diverse. Statewide, the Democratic party has an edge among newly registered voters, with a margin of nearly 2 million over the Republicans–an increase of 40 percent during the past two years.
With these favorable omens in mind, Brooklyn’s Martin Connor, the minority leader, and Schneiderman, who heads the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, have been raising money and recruiting candidates to challenge about a dozen prominent Republicans statewide. In New York City, they’ve focused on taking down three senators: Roy Goodman of the Upper East Side, Frank Padavan of Queens and Guy Velella of the Bronx. Their most active base of support is in the party’s liberal wing and the Working Families Party, which played a part in the recent Democratic takeover of the Nassau county legislature.
The races will not be easy, since each Democratic hopeful faces a well-financed veteran incumbent. But the Democrats have a bigger problem than Republican cash: resistance from their own ranks. In the Bronx, the Democratic county leader rules in close consultation with his Republican counterpart. Queens Democrats have had a decades-long nonaggression pact with the borough’s lone Republican senator. Organized labor continues to accumulate massive debts to the GOP, most recently for the legislature’s passage of an automatic cost-of-living adjustment for retired public employees. And Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver is not particularly eager to divvy up his power with a new set of Democratic leaders in the Senate, say party insiders.
If the Democrats are going to retake Albany, they must first get several counties worth of party deal-makers to take a break from business as usual. Traditional Democratic allies will need some convincing to back these battles, says political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Old habits die hard.”
Guy Velella should be a shining example of a Republican whose time to go has come. His district, once overwhelmingly Italian-American, has become increasingly Hispanic and Democratic. This Bronx county leader is also in the sights of Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau, whose investigators recently showed up with search warrants to take files from Velella’s Morris Park law office that reportedly relate to his fundraising activities. On top of that, his likely opponent, Lorraine Coyle Koppell, wife of former state Attorney General Oliver Koppell, has the name recognition, experience and resources to take the seat.
But Bronx Democratic party leader Roberto Ramirez has other ideas. Ramirez has been in the news lately because of his apparently suicidal decision to endorse insurgent Larry Seabrook in his race against longtime Congressman Eliot Engel. Less visible are Ramirez’s equally contrarian machinations in the race against Velella.
Though most of the district’s elected Democrats are with Coyle Koppell, Ramirez is backing her opponent in the September primary–one Mike Benedetto, a political journeyman unlikely to defeat Velella. What’s more, Coyle Koppell says that when she told Ramirez she planned to run, the Democratic leader openly “discouraged me from running.” Ramirez has tried to dissuade another potential Velella challenger, Engel aide John Calvalli, as well.
“Ramirez is out to protect Velella,” charges Schneiderman. Indeed, the two party leaders have enjoyed a close working relationship, divvying up the borough’s Albany pork. Ramirez even awarded Velella the Democratic line in the 1996 election–and Velella won substantially more votes as a Democrat than as a Republican.
Many Democrats fear that a costly primary will inevitably strengthen Velella, but Ramirez disparages the suggestion that he’s out to make trouble. “I have a God-given constitutional right to endorse whoever I want to,” a defiant Ramirez tells City Limits. “I don’t expect everybody else to live by that credo.” Contending that Benedetto is a stronger candidate than Coyle Koppell, Ramirez denies any quid pro quo with Velella. Insists Ramirez, “It’s my job to elect Democrats.”
As in the Bronx, so in Queens. Like their counterparts in other boroughs, Democratic party leaders have treated their Republican senators like an endangered species, protecting them from extinction in order to maintain access to Senate leadership. A friend across the aisle can provide access to the higher reaches of the Republican party, an invaluable asset in deal-making between branches of the legislature.
Queens has just one Republican senator, and he’s been in office for 29 years. For most of that time, Frank Padavan was considered untouchable. But a Padavan protégé lost his longtime Assembly seat in 1996, revealing the senator as vulnerable. Two years later, he faced a strong challenge from Morshed Alam, a School Board 29 member who won 40 percent of the vote even though Democratic leaders refused to support him.
Doug Forand, an aide to Senator Connor, insists the Democrats are serious about taking down Padavan this time. “The Queens organization has been very helpful,” he says. The reason party leaders didn’t support Alam, Forand claims, is that they feared that backing the Bangladeshi Alam would hurt an Assembly candidate, Anne Carozza, who was counting on white ethnic support.
But “helpful” apparently does not include supporting a proven contender this time around. After planning to face Community Board 8 member Rory Lancman in this month’s Senate primary, Alam quietly withdrew, deciding instead, at the party’s urging, to run for City Council next year.
Organized labor can make or break a state Senate candidate, but not all unions will stand together this fall. In coordination with the Working Families Party, which is backing all three Democratic Senate challengers, the Communications Workers of America, the United Auto Workers and other unions are putting their weight behind the challengers.
Public-sector unions are another story. Dependent on Albany’s financial lifeline and eager to gain an edge in collective bargaining, they will likely back the Republican incumbents. “Forty percent of our endorsements have gone to Republican candidates,” says Mario Cilento, director of public relations for the state’s AFL-CIO. “We do not look at a candidate’s party. We get behind candidates.”
It’s no wonder. This summer, the Republican-led Senate passed legislation authorizing cost-of-living increases in workers’ pensions, capping a year of gains for public employees. “This is one state where Republicans have recognized the importance of working hand-in-hand with labor,” explains Adler.
The alliance between Senate Republicans and organized labor is a touchy topic for the city’s progressive labor leaders, who say the policy is shortsighted. “Many public-sector unions have automatically endorsed all Republicans, regardless of their record,” says one labor activist, who requested anonymity. “When endorsements are so knee-jerk, there’s no incentive for legislators to change.”
Indeed, the Senate remains largely hostile to workers–witness its recent rejection of a minimum wage hike. Many in labor fear the GOP’s retribution, and find they have little room to maneuver. “The practice [of endorsing Republicans] is so deeply entrenched, anything less than a blanket endorsement is seen as treason,” says the activist.
Clearly, Republicans are nervous. In the final weeks of this year’s session, the Senate passed bills on gun control, hate crimes and HMO reform–bills that had languished in committee for years.