State Republican and Democratic strategists don’t agree on much, but on one thing they do concur: Control of the New York State Senate could come down to what happens in a sliver of southern Queens from Maspeth down to Howard Beach. In the handful of communities known as the 15th senatorial district, presidential politics, ethnic rivalry, the vagaries of incumbency and local issues are competing for voters’ attention as Democrats try to replace Republican State Senator Serphin Maltese.

Depending on whom you ask, Maltese’s seat is the only competitive state Senate race in the city, or one of a few vulnerable Republican districts, or merely the GOP counterpart to several Democratic seats that are also at risk. But under any scenario, the contest in Maltese’s district will loom large because of the tight margin in Albany’s upper chamber – whose control will determine the fate of Gov. Spitzer’s agenda and affect policies from school aid to congestion pricing.

Republicans now hold a 33-29 advantage in the state Senate, after picking up a seat in 2006 and another in a special election last year. After 69 years of nearly uninterrupted Republican control, Democrats’ winning just two more seats will split the Senate evenly, shifting control to them, because Democratic Lt. Gov. David Paterson can break ties. An upcoming special election in the upstate 48th district where GOP incumbent Sen. Jim Wright is retiring has Democrats hopeful that, come November – when all state Senate and Assembly seats are up for election – they’ll need just one more seat to take charge.

That calculus will likely mean a major infusion of party resources into the race against Maltese. Republicans, meanwhile, say they are going after as many as eight Democratic senators in New York City, not with a realistic hope of winning all of them but in order to force the Democrats to divert money from attacking Republicans to defending their own seats.

History favors the incumbents. In 2006, 11 of the city’s 28 Senate seats weren’t even contested by the major parties. In districts where both major parties did field candidates, the opposition usually lost by huge margins. Registration figures foreshadowed these outcomes: In some districts, there are 10 Democrats for each Republican. But tradition plays a role, too; that’s why four city seats remain in Republican hands despite their registration disadvantage.

Two of those seats, held by Sen. Martin Golden in Brooklyn and Sen. Andrew Lanza in Staten Island, are not presently considered competitive, according to interviews with strategists from both parties. But they say Maltese’s seat is up for grabs, and Republican Sen. Frank Padavan’s district – spanning the Bronx, Queens, and western Long Island – could be competitive.

Since 1988, Maltese has represented the district composed of Maspeth, Ridgewood, Middle Village, Glendale, Woodhaven, Howard Beach, parts of Ozone Park and other areas. In 2006, Albert Baldeo, an unknown Democrat running with no party support, came within a few hundred votes of beating Maltese, marking the conservative Republican as vulnerable this year. Baldeo, an attorney, is running again, as is Democratic City Councilman Joe Addabbo. Their nascent primary contest has already turned nasty, with Internet postings charging ethical problems and racial insensitivity. That’s all good news for Maltese. “I don’t know why the Democrats keep primary-ing each other,” says a leading state Republican operative. “They have to seriously sit down and say, ‘We can’t let Baldeo and Addabbo kill each other in a primary.'”

Ozone Park native Addabbo says education, transportation and public safety will top his list of issues. One priority is to make sure Mayor Bloomberg retains responsibility for public schools, rather than have them revert to state control. While crime is down, Addabbo says the low pay for starting police officers is a public safety issue – and that low crime statistics don’t have everyone convinced. “They are very quick to tell me,” says Addabbo of his constituents, “that numbers can be skewed in certain ways.”

For his part, Baldeo says that overdevelopment is a major concern, along with the cost of prescription drugs. Running against Maltese (who declined an interview request), Baldeo says he’d highlight the need for a state assault weapons ban and Maltese’s “A” rating from the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association. But the biggest issue, says Baldeo, is property taxes. “That’s really causing a record number of foreclosures in our district and it’s causing a lot of working families to lose their homes,” he says. “You have the high cost of utilities, and now the property taxes. It’s too much for homeowners. A lot of senior citizens are going to lose their homes.”

Party games

Padavan is in his 35th year of service in the state Senate from a district that covers much of northeast Queens, from College Point over to Douglaston and down to Jamaica Estates. He faced a late challenge in 2006 from attorney Nora Marino, who posted solid results. This year, City Councilman James Gennaro, a resident of Jamaica Estates, is gearing up to challenge Padavan. As in other districts, education, the economy and quality of life will dominate the conversation, Padavan says. But there are also district-specific issues in the mix: the construction of a new dormitory near St. John’s University, the upzoning of parts of Jamaica, and related effects on parking and school crowding. The traffic mitigation plan that emerges from Mayor Bloomberg’s commission on congestion could loom large, as might Padavan’s longevity in office: Democrats will say it’s time for change, while Padavan will point to accomplishments ranging from a tough human trafficking law to the founding years ago of the Queens County Farm Museum.

Republican operatives admit that Maltese is in danger. They say Padavan is less at risk but will face a fight, and they’re promising an all-out campaign to defend him. And they claim that there are several Democratic senators in the city who, despite incumbency and heavy registration advantages, are vulnerable.

One is Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who in 2004 replaced jailed Republican leader Guy Vallela in a district that spans the Bronx-Westchester border. Klein spent roughly $1 million to fend off a challenge from Republican Jay Savino in 2006. “That would probably be the only seat that state Republican leaders would consider in play” in the Bronx, says Savino, the borough’s GOP chairman. The district next to Klein is that of Sen. Efrain Gonzalez Jr., who despite being under federal indictment did not draw a GOP challenge in 2006. While Gonzalez might face a primary, the GOP is likely to skip that race again, Savino says. “It’s very difficult to find a candidate who will run against such a steep registration disadvantage,” he explains.

Another state Republican strategist, who asked not to be named when discussing party strategy, named seven other city Democratic senators whom the GOP is targeting – perhaps optimistically, as many observers would consider these safe seats – Sens. Martin Connor, Thomas Duane, Liz Krueger, Bill Perkins, Diane Savino, Eric Schneiderman and Toby Ann Stavisky. The reasons for their supposed vulnerability vary, from being in historic Republican districts (Krueger) to facing a potentially damaging primary (Connor) to being a freshman senator who broke with the Harlem establishment in the presidential contest to back Sen. Barack Obama rather than Sen. Hillary Clinton (Perkins).

The strategist claimed that polling has uncovered weaknesses for most of these Democrats, and that candidates have already been recruited to run against some. Among the major issues, the operative says, will be healthcare – specifically, the legislature’s vote to create and empower the commission that in 2006 recommended closing hospitals around the state. Another strand of the Republican attack in some of these districts will be a reflection of the very majority the GOP is trying to defend: That Democrats, because they are the minority party in the Senate, have failed to deliver key money and projects to their districts.

The GOP strategy is still developing. “This is an ongoing polling process,” the strategist adds. “We roll our candidates out over six to eight weeks. We don’t want to give away the playbook.”

Both sides want to mold perceptions: A race that is deemed “in play” will draw contributions and coverage, which the challenger wants. Republicans, for instance, say Padavan is “untouchable” and won’t be beat. Padavan also disputes the idea that he’s in jeopardy. “I have run 18 times; this is the 19th time. We run on our record of performance, and if history is any guide my constituents will continue to acknowledge that record,” Padavan says. “The district is three-to-one Democratic majority, that’s true, but that doesn’t seem to have been an issue in the past.”

Meanwhile, Perkins scoffs at the idea that a Republican is going to win in his overwhelmingly Democratic district in a presidential election year. The Republicans’ best chance in the city, he says, would be if former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani were the GOP nominee – and even if that happened, it wouldn’t help in Perkins’ district of Harlem and the Upper West Side. “Let’s just say he’s not popular here,” Perkins quips. Marty Algaze, chief of staff for Sen. Martin Connor, is just as dismissive. “This district is so heavily Democratic that a Republican wouldn’t have a chance,” he says of Connor’s southern Manhattan – northwest Brooklyn constituency. As for Republican plans to knock off other city Democrats, “They live in a dream world.”

Beyond the boroughs

Republicans do have to worry about Senate seats outside the city. They want to win back the Westchester seat that Nick Spano lost to Andrea Stewart-Cousins in 2006. But if Spano decides to skip a rematch, Republicans have two other candidates in mind.

Undoubtedly, the outcome of the 2008 presidential race will be a bigger story this fall than what happens in a handful of state Senate districts. But control of the 62-member body is a prize desperately sought by both parties: Democrats because it would confer control of all the levers of state power, Republicans because the Senate – which they have controlled for all but two of the last 69 years – is their last foothold in that power structure. Both parties know that whoever wins control this time stands a better chance of being at the helm – and thus able to exert influence in party-building ways – when redistricting occurs after the 2010 Census.

William Samuels, a longtime Democratic activist who chairs the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee, depicts the race as a crossroads for reform; he wants to see a nonpartisan redistricting commission, which Gov. Eliot Spitzer has also backed. “We’re not running to win. We’re running to get legislation through that’s been blocked for decades,” Samuels declares. But to win will take old-fashioned money. Democrats have been gearing up for this year’s races since before the 2006 election, when Samuels met with major fundraisers to sell them on committing to a big push in ’08. Conventional wisdom is that it takes about $1 million to beat an incumbent state senator. Samuels says it’s hard to get donors to focus on state Senate races because so few contributors know what these races are about.

“National issues are easy to understand – the war, healthcare. They make it into the papers,” Samuels says. “All the issues in Albany get hidden.” Samuels is trying to connect state concerns with national ones by pointing out that, with anti-abortion rights groups targeting Roe v. Wade at the national level, New York state has no clear statute guaranteeing a right to abortion – something a Democratic state Senate could change.

National politics surely will influence state Senate races, but it’s unclear how or to what extent. Presidential years generate high turnout, and high turnout tends to favor the party with a registration advantage in the district. But there’s no guarantee that that advantage will trickle down to the Legislature; after all, Republicans have held on to the Senate even as New York has gone Democratic in the past five presidential elections. Predicting the impact of the national race is even tougher this year because New Yorkers Clinton and Giuliani – who tend to arouse strong feelings among both fans and foes – could head their respective tickets come November. Bloomberg’s possible candidacy is another wild card.

As the political year of 2008 progresses, City Limits will take a closer look at some of the issues at play in these linchpin races.

– Jarrett Murphy