State Senate Power May Hinge On Queens Contests

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In the broad swath of Queens where voters could decide control of the state legislature next year and possibly for decades thereafter, economics is the issue on the minds of voters and candidates – but not just because of the global financial crisis.

The stock market’s recent turmoil certainly has people concerned about the worth of their 401(k) retirement accounts. The real estate market’s current decline obviously raises worries about housing values and foreclosures. But voters and candidates say there are also long-standing fears about the costs of college, health care and taxes. Come November 4, says Democratic campaign staffer Alexis Grenell, “People are going to be voting with one hand on the lever and one on their back pocket.”

For three sitting state senators in Queens who have served 65 years in office between them, the question is whether the combination of pervasive economic gloom and a high-energy presidential race will spur voters to elect well-funded challengers or stick with well-known incumbents.

Those individual decisions will have statewide consequences. For two years, Democrats have made seizing control of the 62-member State Senate—and therefore all three levers of power in Albany—the goal of their 2008 campaign, hoping to use an increasing Democratic registration edge and expected high turnout to their advantage. Republicans have sought to defend their 31-29 majority, in part by going after incumbent Democrats in multiple districts in order to force their opponents to spread their resources thin. For both parties, the result in individual districts will affect not only control of the state Senate but also the redistricting process due in a few years, potentially affecting legislative races for decades to come.

Picking their targets

As Election Day nears, both parties’ hopes have narrowed.

Democrats, who began the fall campaign needing to pick up two seats to take control of the state Senate, saw former City Councilman Pedro Espada, Jr.—who in the past has sometimes sided with Republicans—beat Democratic incumbent Efrain Gonzalez in a Bronx primary last month. It’s unclear which party Espada will decide to caucus with come January, so his victory could cost the Democrats a vote. Meanwhile, three once-promising Democratic insurgents face steep uphill battles in races in Suffolk and Monroe counties, according to the latest polls. The race for an upstate seat that’s now in Republican hands is a dead heat, according to the latest survey from upstate NY’s Siena College. But even if the Democrats take that seat from the GOP, incumbent Erie County Democrat William Stachowski, who is running well behind a Republican challenger, could give one back.

That makes the Democrats’ two Republican targets in New York City—Senators Serphin Maltese and Frank Padavan—all the more important. To take control of the legislature’s upper house, Democrats probably need City Councilman Joseph Addabbo, Jr. to beat Maltese, who’s served since 1989, and Councilman James Gennaro to oust Padavan, who has held his seat since 1973.

While Democrats now have a slimmer chance of taking control, Republicans have also lowered their expectations. Back in January, a Republican staffer told City Limits that no fewer than eight Democratic state senators with districts in New York City could be vulnerable this year. Democrats scoffed at the notion. Now, even that GOP optimist concedes that Republicans’ lone hope within the five boroughs is Peter Koo, the pharmacy owner who is challenging Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, in her ninth year of service.

Here’s a closer look at the three senate seats in the city that are, according to party operatives, in play:

• District 15 spans Forest Hills Gardens, Howard Beach, Maspeth, Middle Village, Woodhaven and parts of other neighborhoods. Democrats say their registration advantage of 40,000, plus an influx of Latinos and South Asians into the district, gives them an edge over Maltese, who first won election in 1988. This is the seat that Democrats and Republicans alike agree is the most competitive in the city, although the GOP contends it will hang on to it.

Maltese was marked as a target after the 2006 election, when he squeaked out a victory by a mere 900 votes over a relatively unknown candidate, Albert Baldeo, an attorney. Baldeo dropped out of the 2008 race before a primary with Addabbo, a city councilman, son of a former Congressman and the preferred candidate of the party organization. Alexia Grenell, a spokeswoman for Addabbo, says the campaign is revolving around economic issues. “There’s been an explosion in foreclosure filings, people declaring bankruptcy,” she says. “Queens is the borough that got hit hardest. This is a home-owning district. And even if someone here didn’t have a sub-prime mortgage, they’ve seen their property values go down.” To the question of what he’d do about those problems, Addabbo is stressing his experience working on budgets under tight fiscal constraints, with his campaign literature claiming personal credit for what the council and mayor have done since 2002: “He’s passed seven straight balanced budgets. He’s delivered $400 tax rebates for four years in a row. And while others wanted to raise taxes this year, Joe held the line and insisted we cut spending first.”

Addabbo also supports creating a state-level nonpartisan independent budget office and “eliminating the hiring of expensive consultants to do work that could be performed by state workers.” He promises to get more money for local schools despite tight budgets by redistributing school aid from upstate to New York City, backs inclusionary zoning to compel developers to create affordable housing, giving the city authority over rent regulation, and “paid medical leave for new moms and those in need.”

For his part, Maltese says the economic crisis has supplanted health care as the top issue among voters he talks to. “Of course, they’re tied together in terms of what they can afford. But now people are worried about losing their jobs,” says the senator. He argues that a Republican majority has the experience needed to cut the budget—perhaps by 5 percent—without any layoffs, which Maltese would consider “a failure of government.” He wants to see more tax cuts and credits to stimulate small businesses. And for his district, he wants to see the right kind of vendor get selected to install video lottery terminals at the Aqueduct racetrack. Maltese is concerned that Gov. Paterson’s administration might pick a bidder who offers quick bucks but insufficient economic development. On education funding, Maltese points to increases in state aid to New York City schools over recent years—funding that he takes a share of credit for delivering. “I think the New York City education system has been well-served by the city having four senators in the majority,” referring to himself, Padavan, and Sens. Martin Golden of Brooklyn and Andrew Lanza of Staten Island.

Democrats say Maltese’s narrow win in 2006 demonstrated his vulnerability, especially to a better-funded and better-known challenger like Addabbo. “Serf Maltese has never had a formidable opponent. He’s now up against a seasoned public official who is out there knocking doors,” says Grenell. Adds past challenger Baldeo: “I hate to use the term ‘dead man walking,’ but this is what is used to describe Sen. Maltese.”

Republicans, while acknowledging that Maltese faces a tough race, paint the 2006 close-shave as a fluke in which Maltese got surprised by a candidate no one took seriously. The candidate himself knows it will be an uphill battle, since GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain likely will lose the district. But he vows: “We will not have a repeat of the debacle we had last time,” referring to 2006, when Republican gubernatorial candidate John Faso’s dreadful showing, which Maltese says almost sunk him. “This time will be different.”

Addabbo, who has received $28,500 in donations from the family of the major Democratic party financier George Soros, has about $139,000 in the bank to Maltese’s $90,000. The Republican State Senate Campaign Committee has donated $125,000 to Maltese.

• District 11 covers a crescent of northeastern Queens starting in Jamaica, swinging through Queens Village and Little Neck around to Whitestone. The seat has been Republican since the 1972 election to Padavan, who has survived in an increasingly Democratic district. Senator John Kerry beat President Bush in every assembly district in Queens in 2004, but Padavan prevailed. In 2006, Padavan won with 59 percent of the vote even as Spitzer swept every district in the borough. “What happens at the top of the ticket invariably doesn’t affect us,” says Padavan. “People in my district are independent. They jump all over the place.”

Democrats believe this time will be different, claiming that 4,000 of the 6,000 voters who have registered in the district since January have signed up as Democrats. Both sides agree that City Councilman James Gennaro’s impressive fundraising—he had more than $400,000 in the bank in early October, compared to Padavan’s $165,000—make him a threat. Democrats also say Padavan is out of step with a NYC electorate that’s turned off by conservative Republicans. Padavan counters that efforts to link him to Bush and other national figures won’t work with the voters. However, asked if he parted with Sen. McCain on any issue, Padavan did not cite any examples of disagreement.

Gennaro chairs the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee and proffers campaign literature calling him “the most progressive and effective environmental leader to ever hold public office in New York City.” He links economic woes to environmental concerns—pitching incentives for green buildings and green jobs as a way to stimulate the economy and protect natural resources. The New York League of Conservation Voters has endorsed both Gennaro and Padavan, saying “the environment will be well served by either of these candidates.”

Gennaro also vows to reduce the disparity between the tax revenue New York City sends to Albany and the services city residents receive—a gap that has been pegged at up to $12 billion. He’s also emphasizing his opposition to “overdevelopment,” his support for domestic violence victims and the installation of security cameras in schools. And he highlights Padavan’s votes against providing women with emergency contraception, and for parental notification of abortions.

For his part, Padavan says his experience in past periods of financial turmoil—like the 1970s fiscal crisis and the 1987 stock market crash—equip him to deal with the current one. During this campaign, “we’ve been careful to point out things that we’ve done in this state to help people. Foreclosure relief, tax reductions, eliminating the sales tax on clothing—a whole host of things we’ve done to make people’s lives more pleasant and more doable,” he says. Asked what more could be done to deal with the current crisis, Padavan said he believes the state can save money by cutting off Medicaid to out-of-state residents (a recent comptroller’s report said at least 30,000 non-New York residents were on both this state and another state’s Medicaid rolls) and improving the collection of sales taxes on Indian reservations. “This is going to require, I think, an intelligent approach where we actually use not an axe but a scalpel, and work hard to retain those services we’ve fought hard to get,” he says.

• District 16 includes Bayside, Elmhurst, Flushing, Forest Hills, Kew Gardens Hills, Rego Park, Whitestone and Woodside. Since the district has four times as many Democrats as Republicans, many Democrats do not think Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky is in any real danger of losing. She ran unopposed in 2006 and won a solid 67 percent of the vote in a party primary this fall.

As the president of the Starside Drugs pharmacy chain, Republican Peter Koo has the resources to equip him for a big final push; he’s already given himself $22,000. He did not return calls seeking comment. When he announced his candidacy earlier this year, Koo stressed public safety. “I will work tirelessly for common-sense tough on crime laws, such as reinstating the death penalty for cop-killers, to prevent and reduce crime throughout New York City and especially here in Queens,” he said. He also emphasized his support for the redevelopment of Willets Point and the need for better parking and transportation along major Queens corridors to boost economic development. His campaign website says he wants to “Expand the sales tax-exemption, increase the child tax credit, and eliminate the home-heating tax,” and enact “education reforms such as expanding pre-K after school programs, school choice and charter schools.”

Koo is president of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, and Flushing forms his base. If McCain does well there, it helps Koo.

Spokesman Joe Rubens says the economy is Stavisky’s top issue. Asked what she tells voters she will do about their financial worries if she returns to Albany, Rubens said: “I think the Democratic conference is working on a bunch of solutions to help middle class New Yorkers in these difficult economic times, whether it’s trying to ease prices with a gas tax holiday, developing alternative sources of energy, dealing with property taxes, or securing vital finds for services.” He added that Stavisky “wrote the law that protects college students and families from predatory lenders.”
On a recent bright Friday afternoon, shoppers at a shopping center in the middle of Stavisky’s district did have economics on their minds. One man peered into a closed-down jewelry store wondering what happened to the owner who’d previously fixed his watch. Roz and Sylvia, two retirees who have lived in the area for decades (and didn’t want their last names used) said they were worried about the effect of the financial crisis on their investments and home values. Another passerby, Michelle, whose eldest daughter attends college, worries about next year’s tuition bill, which will be more than $27,000. “Will we be able to qualify for a loan? We have decent credit now, but …” she says. She also wonders about the quality of healthcare for those who cannot afford decent private coverage. For her family, the credit crunch and slowing real estate market are both hitting home. Her husband’s a CPA whose clients include construction companies that can’t get bonding, and therefore can’t afford an accountant’s services. “What he finds is clients can’t pay. They can’t pay. We’re now forced to look for other resources,” she says. “Other than that, ends wouldn’t meet at all.”

Long-term impact

It’s an open question whether voters in any of these districts are actually thinking about the impact of their vote on control of the state Senate. Republican Padavan says people he talks to are worried about Democrats holding the governor’s mansion and both legislative houses. Democrat Addabbo’s campaign says voters understand the implications for their district if they elect a senator who’s in the minority, versus one whose party controls the distribution of member items and the flow of legislation. But others feel that control of the state Senate is a bit abstract for a campaign pitch. Rubens, for one, says Stavisky would be in line to chair the Higher Education Committee if Democrats take charge, giving her power over important legislation. But that’s not something her street operation is emphasizing. “That’s mainly inside baseball stuff,” he says.

Even more “inside” is that the outcome of these races impact state politics for decades to come. If Democrats win the majority and maintain it through 2010, they are likely to be in a position to decide the way district lines for both the Assembly and Senate are redrawn following the 2010 Census. That means they could design districts in a way to facilitate Democratic dominance for years.

Government reform groups have called for a new, nonpartisan commission to draw the lines, noting the dearth of competitive elections for state legislative seats (in 2002, for example, 158 legislative candidates won by margins of 25 percent or more, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group). Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer in 2007 proposed a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission, but the idea has not found sufficient support in Albany under Gov. Paterson. Senate minority leader Sen. Malcolm Smith, who is likely to be the majority leader if the Democrats seize control, has said his conference is split on whether to grant redistricting power to an independent commission or keep it for themselves. He also has predicted that if the Democrats get the reins in November, they’ll hold on to them for 40 years.

Not surprisingly, Republicans don’t like the sound of that. “Democracy as we know it is really in the balance here,” says Queens Republican vice-chairman Vincent Tabone.

But his party hasn’t backed an independent redistricting authority either. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos in 2006 told a voter survey that the current process “includes numerous checks and balances and protects all New Yorkers.” More recently, he pledged to Tom Golisano, the billionaire who is bankrolling candidates who support a list of his favorite reforms that includes changing how redistricting works, that the Republicans would conduct “the most open and transparent redistricting process in state history, with extensive opportunity for public input in communities across the state,” but did not commit to backing an independent commission.

– Jarrett Murphy