Eric J. Schmertz Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Public Service Eric Lane was quoted in a December 12, 2008 article in The New York Times.
Suburban Democrats Crave State Senate Clout
by Bruce Lambert
SEVEN Democratic state Senators got little public attention last year when they announced the formation of a Suburban Caucus, with Craig M. Johnson of Long Island as co-chairman. After all, the Democrats were the Senate’s minority party, so the new group had little clout.
But last month’s elections, in which Democrats won control of the Senate for the first time in 43 years, have given the caucus a potentially pivotal role on behalf of suburbs across the state. First, however, the Democrats were trying to unify and settle a fight over the Senate leadership.
“Now we’re in the majority,” Senator Johnson said in an interview. “There’s no doubt that our voice will be not only critical but loud within the Democratic conference.”
The aftershocks of the election are still being felt on the Island. Local officials are warily watching Albany, especially on school aid. With the lame-duck Republican majority still in charge until Jan. 1, the Senate will reconvene on Monday, and on Tuesday Gov. David A. Paterson will propose his 2009 budget under the gloom of recession.
The biggest casualty of the elections is the Island’s highest-ranking senator, Dean G. Skelos, a Republican from Rockville Centre. In the new Senate, he faces demotion from majority leader to minority leader. Likewise, his six fellow Republican senators from Long Island are expected to lose their chairmanships of the committees on finance, health, the environment, higher education, consumer protection and corporations.
In the campaign, Republicans warned that if they lost control of the Senate, the Island would suffer at the hands of a city-oriented Democratic Party. The Democrats dispute that.
“The politics are very simple: if you want to hold on to the Senate, you have to take care of Long Island,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a spokesman for the Democratic Senate transition team. “We’ve got to prove we’re going to fight for Long Island and the other suburbs and not be driven entirely by New York City.
“What the Democrats plan to do is cap property taxes, follow the Suozzi report” and oversee Long Island Rail Road issues, Mr. Sheinkopf said. He was referring to a state panel on local government led by the Nassau County executive, Thomas R. Suozzi, that calls for changes in local government.
Long Islanders have little cause to worry, said Eric Lane, a counsel to the Senate Democrats in the 1980s who is now a Hofstra University law professor. “Long Island remains an important location, in the eyes of a Republican majority or a Democratic majority,” he said. “They can’t afford to neglect such a large suburban bloc. If anything, the Democrats will try to win more seats on Long Island, so it may get even more attention.”
Underscoring the potential sway of the Suburban Caucus is the bare majority that the Democrats won in the Senate, with 32 seats to 30 for the Republicans. The Republicans still hold seven of the nine Senate seats from Long Island.
After the election, the Democrats immediately began wrangling over leadership posts. They finally negotiated a compact recently promoting Malcolm A. Smith of Queens from minority leader to Senate president and making a dissident, Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx, the majority leader. But a few days later that deal fell apart.
Amid the leadership battle, the Island will be looking to Senator Johnson and his Democratic colleagues as their party struggles to balance the competing interests of New York City and its suburbs and upstate areas. When Brian X. Foley, the Democratic Brookhaven town supervisor who won a Senate seat in November, takes office next month, he will become the eighth member of the fledgling Suburban Caucus. Three others represent parts of Westchester, and three come from upstate.
Mr. Smith welcomed the birth of the caucus, Mr. Johnson said. “When I got elected, I approached him with the concept, and he said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Mr. Johnson said. “He endorsed it, loved the idea.”
The Democratic takeover of the Senate stemmed from political inroads on the Island. Mr. Johnson helped pave the way last year with an upset victory for the vacant Seventh District seat in northwestern Nassau. He became the Island’s first Democratic senator in a century (excluding senators whose districts included parts of Queens).
That breakthrough was followed by another last month, as Mr. Foley defeated the 36-year incumbent, Caesar Trunzo, in the Third District on Suffolk’s South Shore. Yet another Democratic upset in Queens cemented the new majority.
The slim Democratic majority makes the Johnson-Foley duo a potential swing vote by themselves.
“They could become the Gang of Two and put Long Island on the map politically,” said one local Republican senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of still-fluid leadership maneuvers and pending decisions on allocating staff and funds to the senators.
Displaying his independence in March, Mr. Johnson publicly split with his party and joined the Island’s Republicans senators at a rally to protest proposed school aid cuts. “I broke with my conference to stand up for Long Island schools,” he said.
Mr. Johnson said he was open to future cooperation with Republican colleagues from suburbia. Senator-elect Foley, who as Brookhaven supervisor has been dealing with a Republican Town Board, said he, too, welcomed bipartisan efforts.
But the die-hard Republicans — who bargained unsuccessfully with dissident Democrats in an attempt to keep Mr. Skelos in power as a coalition majority leader — are nevertheless intent on regaining Senate control in 2010. That election is crucial because the federal census that year will be the basis for the next Legislature to redraw the boundaries of all Senate, Assembly and Congressional districts, affecting the political landscape for years to come.
“When you only have a two-vote margin, it’s a very fragile majority,” said Arthur J. Kremer, a former assemblyman from Nassau. “For the Democrats, it’s going to be like piloting a ship in a terrible storm.”