Wait! Is There Still a Possibility Democrats Could Control the State Senate?

Wait! Is There Still a Possibility Democrats
Could Control the State Senate?

December 2016

When the dust settled after the polls closed on Nov. 8, it looked as if the Republicans had held onto their narrow majority in the state Senate. Most political observers had expected the Democrats to pick up two to three seats, giving them a clear numerical majority. But the Democrats lost a seat in the Buffalo area, and failed to win several competitive races on Long Island and upstate. Incumbents George Latimer in Westchester County and Todd Kaminsky in Nassau did win re-election, despite huge expenditures by real-estate and hedge-fund billionaires against them.

But a recount in one Long Island seat, the 8th District on the South Shore, ended Nov. 30 with Democratic challenger John Brooks ahead of Republican incumbent Michael Venditto by 41 votes out of more than 130,000 recorded. Venditto has not conceded, however. Challenges to more than 1,100 paper ballots are now in court, where it will be up to Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Thomas Adams to rule on which ones will be counted. GOP lawyers challenged 750 ballots that were cast in predominantly Latino or African-American areas of the district, while Democrats objected to 360 ballots. 

If Brooks wins at the end of this process, which could easily spill over past the beginning of the Legislature’s 2017 session, the Senate will have 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans. However, one Democrat, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, has caucused with the GOP since he was first elected in 2012. Felder, who had the Democratic, Republican, and Conservative ballot lines in November, recently declared that he will continue to sit with the GOP.

Seven other Democrats are members of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference led by Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx. Klein has allied the IDC with the Republicans since 2011, gaining committee chairs, larger offices, and bigger staff allocations for its members. He formed the IDC following his disastrous role in helping the Democrats lose their one-vote majority in 2010.

Once news broke that Brooks had won the recount in the 8th District, the mainstream Senate Democrats and progressive groups led by Citizen Action and the Working Families Party issued a call for Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to use his power as head of the state party to “unify” the Democrats so they can defend New Yorkers from the vicious policies anticipated from President-elect Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress. Cuomo clearly has no appetite for such a mission.

Instead, Cuomo surrogates have unleashed vitriolic attacks on Andrea Stewart-Cousins, leader of the mainstream Democratic Senate conference since December 2012. Charlie King, who was Cuomo’s running mate in his aborted 2002 campaign for governor and later Cuomo’s hand-picked leader of the Democratic State Committee, issued a statement out of the blue to Albany reporters: “If Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins is a leader, now is the time to lead.” He went on to blame her for the Democrats’ failure to win the Senate, overlooking the fact that Cuomo handed the Senate Republicans a huge advantage when he sold out on reapportionment in 2012 and let them gerrymander district lines to give them an advantage through the 2020 election.

King is now cochair of Mercury, a public-affairs outfit founded by people who worked for the last Republican governor, George Pataki. A real-estate super PAC that supported Republican candidates for the Senate hired it this year, and it has also done work for the PAC affiliated with the IDC. The governor’s office claimed that they had no advance knowledge of King’s attack. 

Stewart-Cousins took over the leadership of the Democratic conference in December 2012, following the chaotic tenures of Malcolm Smith and John Sampson, both of whom have since been convicted on corruption charges. She has been a calm and steady leader, uniting a conference that had been fractious and undisciplined. In Albany terms, she is what is known as a class act. Cuomo, Klein, and Republican Senate leader John Flanagan could take a few lessons from her. 

There seems to be no shortage of political prostitutes who will do Andrew Cuomo’s dirty business. Two years ago, former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn fronted for Cuomo’s ridiculous Women’s Equality Party, a mechanism for him to take revenge on the Working Families Party for making him plead to win its ballot line. In November, former governor David Paterson, until recently Cuomo’s state Democratic chair, unleashed an unsolicited attack on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Andrew’s favorite enemy. Paterson claimed that there are many Democrats who could defeat de Blasio for re-election in 2017, but that none of them has the courage to run. (He did not say that he himself was interested in running.)

The last thing Andrew Cuomo wants is a Democratic-controlled state Senate, but it seems that the current campaign calling on him to unify his party puts him in an uncomfortable spot. An anonymous Cuomo aide told the Daily News Dec. 1 that it was “preposterous” that Stewart-Cousins wants the governor to get involved “in an intramural Senate fight.”

In any case, with the 8th District race still undecided, the Democrats might be premature in declaring a 32-31 majority, even if it’s only a technical one.

Four years ago, in the 46th District near Albany, Republican George Amedore was ahead by 39 votes when the paper recount finished. But after a protracted court fight, Democrat Cecilia Tkaczyk was declared the winner by 18 votes. She was not sworn in until January 23, 2013. The GOP had been so confident that Amedore had won that they let him conference with them, although he could not sit on the Senate floor or vote.