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.
Moreover, the ever-popular Andrew Cuomo seemed to like having a Republican Senate to play off of the Democratic Assembly, especially since Republicans agree with him on issues like property taxes and pension reform and are unwilling to block some of his signature measures like legalizing same-sex marriage and reforming the tax code. The governor has been noticeably noncommittal on the question of whether or not he will campaign for Democratic State Senators in the fall.
In December, Mr. Sampson named Ravi Bhatra as his appointee to a supposedly enhanced new ethics watchdog in Albany. Mr. Bhatra is a lawyer with ties to Clarence Norman, a former Brooklyn Democratic Party boss fresh out of prison. Later, it was revealed that Mr. Sampson was counsel to Mr. Bhatra’s law firm.
“Ravi Bhatra!” said one Democratic consultant who is a veteran of several state senate campaigns. “Ravi Bhatra! That’s the message you are sending to Long Island and suburban voters, that we have learned our lesson?! Every week is a reminder of how weak and ineffective these guys are.”
Campaign finance filings unveiled last month give the GOP a $10 million advantage over its Democratic counterparts. The Dems, meanwhile, are still saddled with millions in debt from the 2010 campaign and have been forced to rent office space from the much-reviled United Federation of Teachers.
And then last week, Republicans unveiled the new district lines in the once-a-decade reapportionment, and they were enough to make Boss Tweed blush. Seven Democrats had been shoved into four districts. A 63rd senate seat was created upstate. Downstate districts were overpopulated, and upstate Republican-leaning districts underpopulated. Districts were created to recognize new electoral realities—like a predominantly Asian seat in Queens and a predominantly Jewish seat in south Brooklyn—but they were carved up in such a way as to give a Republican a decent shot at winning.
These maps may not hold, but the perception that Democrats have been once again outplayed by the GOP may.
To make their case that they still have a shot at fulfilling their destiny and re-retaking over the Senate chamber in November, Democrats have deputized Queens Senator Mike Gianaris as the head of their campaign arm. He is, in many ways, the perfect person for the job. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, charismatic, liked by his constituents and his peers. Oh, and he was elected only in 2010, so he can profess ignorance about the circus that surrounded his party the previous two years.
Asked about the coup, the intraparty brawls, the failure to end the process of partisan gerrymandering, Mr. Gianaris can shake his head and just say, “I wasn’t there.”
“The fundamental dynamic still hasn’t shifted. This is a very Democratic state,” he said in an interview at a midtown restaurant on Saturday.
“There are two and a half million more Democrats in the state. Republicans only make up a quarter of the electorate. There a number of seat they are holding now that are Democratic by registration. It is a presidential election year, which means Democrats vote in greater numbers. There are a number of factors moving in the wrong direction.”
It is a tough sell. When pointed out that Republicans have more money, Mr. Gianaris responded, “They always have.” Which is true—but they have also always held control of the chamber (the only time there was parity was in 2008, when the Democrats won).
When asked why Governor Cuomo hasn’t come out definitively in favor of a Democratic State Senate, he responds: “I am not concerned with where our governor is. He is the head of our party. We are in the governing season. When we get to the political season I have every confidence he will be with us … I give the Republicans credit for spinning this tale, but it is not the reality.”
When asked about the MTA payroll tax and other measures, he says, “I wasn’t in the room. Members took votes, good or bad, based on what they chose to do. Having not been privy to those debates, it is hard for me to really render an opinion on it. All I can tell you is we are extremely sensitive to that now.”
Republicans say that they have taken sharpest arrows of the Democratic quiver with the passage of same-sex marriage and the ending of the millionaire’s tax.
“Albany is working right now,” said Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate GOP. “We saw that when the Democrats controlled the Senate it was very New York City focused. There is no reason to believe they will be any different if they get back into the majority.”
A major question after November will be whether or not the chamber is now divided 32-30, or 32-26—if, in other words, those four Democrats who bolted the conference because they decided they couldn’t be associated with their former party colleagues would continue to hold out if it meant keeping the chamber in Republican hands. Both Republicans and Democrats say they are with them, but the four themselves aren’t saying who they are with.
Democrats, meanwhile, are seething. Being in the minority in Albany is miserable, and it is hard to find any Democratic political insiders who honestly believe they have a legitimate chance to win back the chamber, despite their registration advantage.
“They did not do the job when they controlled the chamber,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant who helped steer his party into the majority in 2008, and who, it should be said, was implicated in the casino lobbying scandal. “They were not perceived as being in charge. The Republicans seem to be getting along with Cuomo. They have been outmaneuvered, and they can’t count on demographics to save them.”
And if they do this time around, politicos say it could be another long time in the political wilderness before they come back.
“Barring an earthquake of monumental proportions that creates a tsunami-like wave that takes out the Republican chambers in the State Senate, I don’t see how it is possible the Democrats retake control. There is no way,” said Scott Levenson, another Democratic consultant. “They are actually broke. They have far too many fronts to defend. They may get it back eventually, but the fact that they couldn’t hold it when they had it is an unbelievable sin.”