For years the operating assumption in Albany political circles on both sides of the aisle was that eventually, one day, Democrats would take control of the State Senate, thus completing the extermination of the Republican Party in New York State.
The logic of this argument was simple: A Republican had not been elected statewide since George Pataki won re-election in 2002, and even that was something of a fluke victory over scattered Democratic opposition. Democrats had a huge majority in the State Assembly. Democrats had a 5:3 advantage in the number of voters registering with their party, a ratio that was likely to increase as more immigrants and minorities came of voting age in the state. The GOP was becoming a party of guns and the God-fearing, neither of which had much traction among Yankee Republicans, or what was left of them.
The only reason the State Senate had remained an island of red in a deep blue sea—which it undoubtedly had: the GOP had remained firmly in control except for a one-year interruption since 1939—was that once a decade they had gerrymandered themselves a lifeline during the decennial redistricting process.
But bit by bit, Democrats worked to beat Republicans at the ballot box, and gradually narrowed the GOP’s advantage in the chamber. A gray-headed somnolent aura hung over the Senate majority, as Republican lawmakers stayed in office well into their 70s, after party bigwigs, fearful that only incumbency could keep Democrats at bay, implored aging senators to run again and again.
Then, at last, in 2008, buoyed by Barack Obama, the Democrats won enough seats to have a majority in the chamber. Shangri-La at last! The Republicans were on the run! Democrats controlled every lever of power for the first time in the State since the New Deal, and veritable political paradise was sure to follow.
The Democratic conference was still dominated by liberal and minority members, but they had taken control of the chamber by winning in longtime GOP strongholds on the suburbs of Long Island and even in rural hamlets in the North County and western New York.
On the first day they were in the majority, in a closed-door meeting, Brian Foley, a freshman lawmaker from Long Island in a seat long held by the GOP, told his new colleagues that he was thrilled to be a part of the team, and was looking forward to doing something about skyrocketing property taxes.
He was told he was in the wrong room. The Democrats are not the party that cares about property taxes. If you pay property taxes, you are rich, his new colleagues told him, according to people who witnessed the exchange. We are the party of renters. Mr. Foley said no more.
And so it went for the newly elected Senate majority. They instituted an MTA payroll tax and a millionaire’s tax, both of which angered suburban swing voters. Instead of lavishing resources on the upstate counties their newly elected lawmakers represented, they devoted attention to their base in the city.
And the policy decisions were the least of it.
On more than a few occasions, senators nearly came to fisticuffs behind closed doors. Legislative sessions supposed to start in the midafternoon didn’t get going until early evening and lasted late into the night. Two senators abruptly decided they were now Republicans; they were eventually lured back with the promise of leadership posts. A campaign season promise to reform the redistricting process that had kept the Democrats in the minority for more than half a century was forgotten when Democrats realized that if they could just hold on through one more election, they would be the ones drawing the lines, and they could at last send the GOP, in one lawmaker’s phrase, “into oblivion.”
Then, less than two weeks before the 2010 election that would determine if Democrats would get to keep their cushy new majority chambers, the state’s Inspector General released a bombshell report detailing how John Sampson, the Senate Majority Leader, rigged the bidding for a favored casino operator to run the slots at a new racing track in Queens, including leaking information about the other bidders and attending a “victory party” at the home of a popular lobbyist once they had properly secured casino operators the winning bid.
In the elections a few days later, demographic trends accounted for very little, and Democrats were swept out of office.
After Election Day, Democrats assumed it was only a temporary blip, but in the months since a string of bad news has left Democrats thinking they may have to get used to the smaller, less comfortable chairs belonging to minority members.
At the beginning of 2011, four mostly moderate, mostly suburban Democratic lawmakers bolted the conference, mainly to distance themselves from the stench of Mr. Sampson’s leadership and tumult that a Democratic Senate had come to conjure in the minds of voters.