After a rough two years of scandals, coups, Espadas and Monserrates, the New York Senate Democrats still had smiles on their faces. There were seats to be won, hotshot new candidates to challenge entrenched Republicans, and a sense that Andrew Cuomo at the top of their ticket would bolster their turnout while Republicans would have little reason to go to the polls.
Now, though, those smiles have faded a bit.
As has been the Democrats' curse for the last few years, triumph and gloating are quickly followed by scandal, failure and embarrassment. The trouble that has befallen the Democrats' chances to maintain and grow their Senate majority from 32 seats is not on the level of Eliot Spitzer’s call girl habit, David Paterson’s many scandals, the Senate coup, or Monserrate and Espada's legal trouble, but it is embarrassing and may be more damaging in the long run.
The problems now threaten to return the Senate to Republican hands after only two years of Democratic control. That, in turn, would bolster rural and suburban legislators, weakening the city's power in the Senate and in state government.
Two of the Democrats' sure-shot candidates in Long Island, David Mejias and Regina Calcaterra -- candidates Democrats thought would help them expand their thin majority -- had to drop out. Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino has been surging; a recent Quinipiac Poll put him within 6 points of Democrat Andrew Cuomo.
For their part, Democrats say that, despite their problems on Long Island, they are gaining momentum elsewhere. Sen. Liz Krueger, who has served on the Democratic Campaign Committee for years, said she thinks Republicans are in for a surprise. "Carl Paladino is our secret weapon," she said. "In times of financial crisis like these, are people going to turn to Paladino -- misogynist, sexist, porno-loving and violent, at least in his rhetoric? I don’t think so."
Lost on Long Island?
Republican spokesman Scott Reif said the Democrats have fallen victim to their own huge oversights.
"The Democrats repeatedly pointed to two candidates on Long Island where they thought they would pick up seats, but they didn’t do their homework," said Reif. "Regina Calcaterra had a residency issue and then with Mejias dropping out â€¦ again, they didn't do their homework."
Calcaterra was challenging Sen. Kenneth Lavalle, who has served in the Senate since 1976. And then, on Aug. 18, Calcaterra was tossed off the ballot for not meeting residency requirements. Calcaterra had surrendered her New York driver’s license, obtained a divorce, filed her taxes, voted and kept a home in Pennsylvania. Jennifer Maertz is now running on the Democratic ticket with Calcaterra's blessing.
Then on Sept. 2, things got got even worse for Democrats. Mejias, who was thought to be giving Sen. Kemp Hannon, the run of his life, was arrested on Sept. 2 for menacing, reckless endangerment and stalking after he allegedly followed his former girlfriend in a vehicle and forced her off the road. Suddenly the Monserrate scandal seemed less far away. Mejias bowed out of the race and handed the reins to Democrat Francesca Carlow. However, Mejias’ name remains on the ballot.
The circumstances of Calcaterra's and Mejias' departures, along with the timing, will make it almost impossible for the replacement candidates to win and so probably destroyed any chance Democrats had of picking up the two Senate seats.
The Upstate Contests
Stachowski had a bruising reelection battle in 2008. Following that, he hoped to bolster his position by becoming head of the Finance Committee, on which he had been the ranking Democrat. Democrats instead gave the chairmanship to Sen. Carl Kruger. While that move may have appeased Kruger and the three other renegade Senate Democrats from the city, many in Buffalo saw it as another instance of downstate legislators' disrespect for western New York.
Having ousted Stachowski, Kennedy faces Republican Assemblymember Jack Quinn, and Republicans like his chances a lot. "Jack Quinn is doing very well in Western New York," said Reif."
Krueger, though, sees upstate as a land of opportunity for Democrats. "The farther you go upstate, polls show, the more unhappy people are with their incumbent. And the more north you go upstate the more the incumbents are Republicans," she said.
Further, Krueger said that recent studies show that, in times of financial crisis, voters prefer female candidates.
In the media market surrounding Albany three female candidates are seeking to unseat Republican incumbents. Krueger sees a grand opportunity there for Democrats to pick up seats and increase the number of women in the state Senate.
In the 43rd district, Saratoga County Supervisor Joanne Yepsen is challenging freshman Republican Sen. Roy McDonald, the man who replaced former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. In the 44th senate district Susan Savage, chair of the Schenectady County Legislature, is running against 34-year incumbent Sen. Hugh Farley. In the 41st senate district Didi Barrett hopes to unseat 20-year Republican incumbent Sen.Stephen Saland.
All three, Krueger thinks, can capitalize on the message coming out of the area's media, which urges voters to "Throw the bums out." In these races, she said, the incumbents (read bums) are Republicans. "There is an excitement around these women's campaigns and, no disrespect, but you don’t have that excitement around Hugh Farley and Saland and Roy MacDonald," Krueger said.
Then too, she thinks that Paladino’s campaign -- with its angry tone, to say nothing of his racist and pornographic e-mails -- will send voters running to a women candidates
In Westchester, Krueger has her eye on the 40th senate district race between Republican Assemblymember Gregg Ball and Democrat Mike Kaplowitz, who are vying to replace retiring Republican Sen. Vincent Leibell. Republicans dumped around $150,000 into the campaign of Ball's primary opponent, Beth Murphy. But Ball, who ran as an anti-establishment, Tea Party candidate, won, and now Republicans have pledged their support. Krueger thinks Republicans damaged Ball in the primary, and it will be difficult to combine the traditional Republican base and Ball’s Tea Party supporters.
The Crystal Ball
Senate Republican Minority Leader Dean Skelos has predicted that his conference could pick up four or five more seats.
While Krueger thinks Paladino will bost Democratic chances, Reif said that Paladino’s surge will help draw Republican voters in Western and upstate New York, making it more difficult for Democrats there. Mostly, he said, Paladino has been effective in "channeling anger and frustration over the taxes and fees Democrats have enacted over the last three years."
Krueger maintained that Paladino will help drive moderate voters to Democratic candidates. If Democrats see the gubernatorial race as a real contest, more Democrats of them actually will come to the polls -- or so the theory goes.
"I was joking with [Republican Sen. Tom] Libous the other day," Krueger said. "Every year when I worked on the Senate campaign committee and we were in the minority Tom would say, â€We are going to further strengthen our majority and win big.’ I would very quietly say, â€We are going to pick up a couple of seats. And each year I was right. And now we are in the majority. So again this time I am going to say quietly, â€I think we are going to pick up a couple of seats.’"