How Andrew Cuomo Helped the Republicans Keep Control of the State Senate

How Andrew Cuomo Helped the
Republicans Keep Control of the State Senate

December 2012

About 50 tenants rallied outside Governor Andrew Cuomo's Midtown office Dec. 13 to demand that the state strengthen and enforce its tenant-protection laws.About 50 tenants rallied outside Governor Andrew Cuomo's Midtown office Dec. 13 to demand that the state strengthen and enforce its tenant-protection laws. Tenants are about to get screwed again.

In the November 6 election, Democrats recaptured a majority of seats in the New York State Senate. While the official results are still to be determined in two races, Democrats seem to have won 33 of the 63 seats and Republicans 30.

The Senate Republicans had what they thought was a foolproof plan to keep their narrow 32-30 majority in a year when all the Senate and Assembly lines had to be redrawn to conform to the 2010 U.S. Census results. With the explicit support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, they drew extremely gerrymandered districts designed to guarantee their control. 

They also bent the State Constitution to add a 63rd seat to the Senate, creating a new rural district outside Albany tailor-made for millionaire Assemblymember George Amedore. Ironically, while paper ballots are still being argued over in court, it looks as if the Democrat in this race, Cecilia Tkaczyk, has won.

Despite his repeated pledge to insist on nonpartisan redistricting, Cuomo signed off on the deal.

In the months leading up to the election, Cuomo refused to answer reporters when they asked if he favored a takeover of the state Senate by his own party. He endorsed only one Democrat, incumbent Joe Addabbo of Queens, and refused calls from fellow Dems to endorse others.

Even with their carefully jiggered district lines and a huge cash advantage, the Republicans fell short. But on Planet Albany, that was not the end of the story.

Despite losing their majority, the Senate Republicans have sealed a deal with enough rogue Democrats to keep control. First, newly elected Simcha Felder, who beat a Republican incumbent in the new and heavily Orthodox “super Jewish” Brooklyn district, announced that he would caucus with the Republicans, thus giving current Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau) a 31st vote toward the 32 needed to elect a leader. What Felder got in return may include a pledge for state funds to bus Jewish students to private religious schools.

Then, after weeks of speculation, Skelos came to an understanding with Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester), the leader of the so-called Independent Democratic Conference, a group of four (since grown to five) Democrats who split from the mainstream Democratic Conference after the G.O.P. regained a narrow majority in the 2010 election.

On Dec. 4, Skelos and Klein announced a power-sharing agreement under which the Republican Conference and the Independent Democratic Conference will have “joint and equal authority” over which bills come out for a vote, the state budget, appointments to state and local boards, and leadership and committee assignments.

The announcement promised rules changes to implement this “bipartisan governing coalition” in the new legislative session that will begin in January. The IDC will be formally recognized as a third, permanent conference, and Skelos and Klein will share the constitutionally mandated title of Temporary President of the Senate, a title each will hold for two weeks at a time.

Klein and Skelos call this new setup the Senate Majority Coalition. The irreverent Albany press corps, which had earlier come up with “the Kleiniacs” to describe the IDC, quickly dubbed it “Skleinos.”

Skelos and Klein promised to work with Governor Cuomo on “progressive policy issues that benefit all New Yorkers.” Right on cue, the governor issued a statement in which he recognized the new arrangement but reserved judgment on whether he approves of it or not: “I can offer the people of the state my opinion at any time over the next two years.”

Cuomo’s statement criticized both parties: “The Republican conference led for 42 years and blocked much progressive legislation. The Democratic conference was in power for two years and squandered the opportunity, failing to pass any meaningful reform legislation despite repeated promises.”

Cuomo listed ten items as a “litmus test” for his support of the Skleinos alliance, in his words:

  1. The property-tax cap that has finally imposed fiscal discipline on local governments and provided relief to taxpayers
  2. Campaign-finance reform
  3. Increasing the minimum wage
  4. Reform of New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy
  5. Environmental protection and initiatives that address our changing climate
  6. The education and Medicaid budget rate formulas that provided fiscal predictability and sustainability
  7. The tax cuts that brought taxes on the middle class to the lowest rates in 58 years
  8. Education reforms—like teacher evaluations—that bring more accountability to our schools and continued improvement to our SUNY system
  9. Protecting a woman’s right to choose
  10. Limited and highly regulated casinos introduced as economic-development generators.

This list is a mixed bag at best, and far from wholly progressive. No mention of increased resources for schools (teacher evaluations instead!), no higher income-tax rates for the rich (casinos will provide the revenue!), no protections for transgendered New Yorkers. And did you notice? No increased tenant protections. 

Cuomo has said several times since Nov. 6 that it is not his role to interfere in the internal affairs of a legislative body, and that he will work with whoever emerges in control of the Senate. But many observers of state government believe that he is behind this new arrangement. 

It is not a secret that Cuomo prefers a Republican-controlled Senate, although he won’t admit it, and virtually no other politician will say so in public. (Reports that Klein had consulted the governor as he negotiated with Skelos were denied all around.) But actions speak louder than words.

How exactly will this new power-sharing agreement work, if it works at all? It likely means different things to the two principals. Skelos realizes he will have to increase the minimum wage and pass a few other bills to appease progressives, but he probably believes that he will remain in charge. To Klein, the deal probably means that he will have equal authority over legislation, budget, and appointments.

How much of the progressive agenda will advance? Is there a chance for real campaign-finance reform, taking big money out of elections and providing public financing? Or will the result be a wimpy, watered-down farce? That depends on whether any of these principals truly wants reform. Cuomo, Skelos and Klein all benefit from the loose standards that allow them to amass huge campaign treasuries from fat cats.

Tenants get shafted

As for real rent-law reform, the prospect is not promising. Dean Skelos is beholden to the New York City real-estate lobby, which gives the Senate GOP millions of dollars every election cycle. Jeff Klein is a prodigious fundraiser, and real-estate money is splashed all over his campaign finance filings with the state Board of Elections. Klein has received thousands of dollars from the Rent Stabilization Association, the Bronx Realty Advisory Board, the Real Estate Board of New York, and Larry Gluck and his Stellar Management. Gluck has taken many buildings out of the Mitchell-Lama program, including Janel Towers in the Bronx part of Klein’s district (see below).

Given his new power, Klein’s campaign treasury and that of the IDC will swell even more. As of November 29, New Yorkers for Klein had a balance of $867,481 and the IDC Initiative had $344,965 on hand. (Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave the IDC Initiative $75,000 in September.)

Klein has refused to cosponsor pro-tenant bills. In fact, he was one of the major reasons that not a single such measure passed the Senate in 2009 and 2010, when the Democrats intermittently controlled the Senate and he was deputy majority leader. He warned his colleagues that they should not pass too many pro-tenant bills because the Democrats needed real-estate money to keep their majority. 

On more than one occasion, he told groups of tenants from his district that he would vote for repeal of vacancy destabilization if the bill came to the Senate floor, but that he would work to make sure it did not emerge from the Housing Committee. He succeeded in keeping the bill bottled up, thus allowing landlords to continue removing tens of thousands of apartments every year from rent stabilization.

Another Kleiniac, Diane Savino (Staten Island-Brooklyn) also has significant numbers of rent-regulated apartments in her district. David Carlucci (Rockland) and the newest IDC member, Malcolm Smith of Queens, have a small number of rent-stabilized apartments. David Valesky of Syracuse has none.

Smith was Senate majority leader for a few short months in 2009, until the Republican coup that June when the GOP recruited two rogue Democrats and seized power. As a condition for their return to the fold, Smith was ousted as leader, and he has been bitter ever since. He has announced that he wants to run for mayor on the Republican line next year, an obvious motive for his joining forces with Skleinos. 

Recruiting Smith to the IDC probably helped Klein seal the deal with Skelos. The Republicans and the IDC will have 36 votes, the mainstream Democrats 27. It takes 32 votes to pass anything in the Senate.

Smith also gives the IDC a veneer of diversity. The 30 Republicans are all white, and all but three are men. The Kleiniacs were all white until Smith, who is African-American, joined.

Any way you slice it, this development means bad news for tenants. Greg David of Crain’s New York Business commented approvingly on Dec. 5: “The Senate will remain aligned with the major real-estate groups.”

For tenants, and for progressives, the issue is not simply which party controls the chamber. If the Senate were to adopt rules in January to allow bills to be discharged from committee to the Senate floor without approval of the leader (or leaders, under the new system), that would be genuine progress. If pro-tenant bills can reach the floor, there would likely be enough votes to pass them. But don’t hold your breath waiting for this rule change. Skelos, or Skelos and Klein, will still have total control over what bills are brought up for a vote.

Sitting in the catbird seat, chirping happily over this latest twist, is Governor Andrew Cuomo. He can rely on the Republicans to hold down spending, thus burnishing his credentials as a fiscal conservative. And he will be able to get a few things through to show the nation that he is a progressive—but not too progressive for voters in Iowa or to raise money from Wall Street.

And if Jeff Klein and Dean Skelos start squabbling and Skleinos falls apart—both men have short fuses and volcanic tempers—Cuomo can always wash his hands of the whole affair. After all, he can offer the people of the state his opinion at any time over the next two years.

The one ripple of hope that we can take away from this deplorable deal is that the Kleiniacs generally come from heavily Democratic districts, and they will need to deliver on progressive issues in the coming session to justify getting in bed with the GOP. As tenants and tenant advocates, we have a greater responsibility than ever to make sure that strengthening and expanding tenant protections is broadly seen as a core progressive issue. We should use the next two years to make failing to do that a major political liability for the members of this new “Majority Coalition.”