With GOP in control of State Senate, Cuomo faces delicate balancing act

By Tom Precious | News Albany Bureau | November 5, 2014

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s public position was that he wanted his fellow Democrats to take control of the State Senate so he could push through a series of GOP-blocked measures – abortion rights, immigration policies and another increase in the minimum wage.

But with Republicans in full control of that chamber after the elections Tuesday, Cuomo’s best opportunities might be for getting approval of popular fiscal plans that otherwise would be dead with the more left-leaning Democrats in leadership roles.

Although it does give Cuomo something else: political cover to blame Republicans for initiatives that the liberal base of his own party wants but that Cuomo can’t get through.

After winning 32 seats in the 63-member Senate, Republicans will have full control of that chamber next year for the first time since 2011-12, and they won’t need any help from Independent Democratic Conference members.

How did the Senate GOP pull this off?

For starters, money, and lots of it. Some of the money was raised by the GOP. But super PACs – political action committees representing a range of interests and wanting to block a Democratic takeover – also raised substantial funds for their own campaigns that helped elect Republicans.

Money from outside groups totaled $15 million over the last few months. Leading the outside spending for Senate races, as of Wednesday, was New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, a pro-charter school group that unleashed $4.8 million, according to Bill Mahoney at the New York Public Interest Research Group. Democratic-friendly super PACS also raised and spent large sums, specifically the New York State United Teachers union, which spent at least $4.1 million.

The GOP also found a strong slate of candidates this time.

And, some observer say, it did not hurt that Cuomo came out in favor of Senate Democrats in areas of the state where he did not perform well in his own election. They credited Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos of Nassau County and Sen. Catharine M. Young, R-Olean, who heads the Senate GOP campaign committee.

Democrats blamed their losses on everything from the SAFE Act gun-control law, an anti-Obama sentiment that cost Democrats elections in other states and a still-sour economy.

Plus, as Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, pointed out, the three Senate seats that Democrats lost were all previously held by Republicans, and in 2012, district boundary lines were redrawn by Republicans to favor Republicans – a process that Cuomo signed off on.

“The farce of redistricting set this in motion,” Kennedy said of the Democratic losses in the Senate.

Republicans won three Democratic-held seats in the Senate from Monroe County and the mid- and lower Hudson Valley, held open seats and suffered only one loss: the 60th District seat in Erie County, where Democrat Marc C. Panepinto won in a four-way race with just a third of the total vote. Interestingly, Panepinto was the one Democrat vying in contested races where Cuomo did not make endorsements.

Voicing the loudest anger with Cuomo over the GOP Senate victory was the Working Families Party. Cuomo courted that labor-backed party last spring and, in return for its endorsement, he pledged to work hard to prevent Republicans from controlling the Senate.

Cuomo “squandered millions on a fake party,” Working Families Party director Bill Lipton said, referring to Cuomo’s new Women’s Equality Party.

He “left millions more in his campaign account as New York Democrats in the Legislature and in Congress withered on the vine,” Lipton added.

Additionally, Senate Republicans came “flying out of the gate” after the September primaries with messages, especially upstate, meant to move voters to their side, said Bruce N. Gyory, a political consultant and adjunct political science professor at the University at Albany.

Upstate, they focused on a theme: GOP losses means Democratic takeover, and that means loss of power to upstate at the hands of downstate politicians. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a backer of Senate Democrats, became a lightening rod, and Democrats failed to follow with a tough “rapid response” message to counter the GOP mantra, Gyory said.

“Republicans did a better job of driving home a regionalism theme: that ‘we’ll protect your interests more than Democrats,’ ” he said.

Now the unanswered question: Where does Cuomo want to go?

The governor fueled a reputation in his first term as a social progressive and fiscal moderate, but following nasty tussles with Democratic progressives in the September primary and in the general election, Cuomo likely will be under continuing pressure to lean left in his second term.

The governor recently said he needed a Democratic majority in the Senate to push a progressive agenda in his second term, including an abortion proposal, a plan to give state college aid to children of illegal immigrants, another increase in the minimum wage and a taxpayer-funded campaign finance system.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York said that it would be a “mistake” to think the Senate GOP takeover was about the Women’s Equality Act, which includes the abortion measure. President M. Tracey Brooks blamed Democrats’ legislative defeats on education and property tax issues as well as a “mood of general dissatisfaction.”

An anti-abortion group, meanwhile, said backers of the abortion proposal “were utterly defeated” in the Senate elections. The Chiaroscuro PAC said the issue ended up “blowing up in the faces of New York Democrats who neglected talking about the economic issues New Yorkers really care about in order to spin a yarn about a fabricated war on women.”

But Senate Republicans said that based on campaign promises by Cuomo and Democratic senators, the state was getting ready for a hard left turn. The GOP victories stopped that from happening, they suggested.

“We have balanced the New York State government, and the entire state remains represented, as opposed to control being in one place, particularly New York City,” said Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma.

In 2015,Senate Republicans will push for expanded job-creation programs, more tax cuts, fewer regulatory burdens and more funds for to remedy crumbling infrastructure, he said.

That leaves open the question whether Senate Republicans can or will want to cut another deal with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, which broke away from the mainline group of Democrats in 2013 to form a ruling coalition with the GOP.

If there is a continued relationship between the IDC and the GOP, it likely won’t be as beneficial for the IDC as in the last two years, which included rotating top leadership titles on a daily basis between Republican Skelos and Democratic Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx.

Klein, an aide said, was on a plane Wednesday and unavailable for comment, and Skelos declined an interview – signs that he and Klein still have much to work out before they heavily engage with reporters.

One Democrat said Wednesday that the Senate GOP and the IDC were already negotiating a change in Senate rules to permit the continuation of the IDC as a stand-alone group, with various perks, including staff, offices and committee chairs but with less power than it has had in the last two years.

Gallivan said that he does not know the future of relations between the Senate GOP and the IDC but that he expects them to “work together” on common interests, although Tuesday’s results make clear that the GOP will run the show in the Senate.

There are reasons the GOP might still want some sort of formal relationship with the IDC, if for none other than wanting to have a cushion for votes. Moreover, one Senate Republican, Thomas W. Libous of Binghamton, is under federal indictment and no one can predict the future of that case.

Gyory said the GOP working with the IDC also makes sense just for the simple legislative reality of vote cushioning.

“In the course of the Legislature handling issues, there are controversial measures that some of your members are not going to want to vote with the majority,” he said, adding that the IDC could give the Senate GOP that leeway on some controversial votes in the next couple of years.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com