Gotham Gazette

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How Hurricane Sandy Upended Politics As Usual in Albany


ALBANY, N.Y. — With the power in the State Senate hanging in the balance after last week's election and the impact of Superstorm Sandy overshadowing the civic debate, the political calculus in Albany has shifted.

Where only a few weeks ago lobbyists and policy makers were debating the possibility of a special session of the State Legislature that would address campaign financing, the minimum wage and marijuana possession laws, they are now talking about how the government can respond with smarter policies to lessen the impact of future super storms.

“Rebuilding becomes the focus now,” said Russ Haven, legislative counsel at the New York Public Interest Research Group, in an interview this week.

He added that legislative pay raises that had long been rumored as a focus of a special session will be “a lot harder to do” now that Sandy has added to the state’s budget shortfall.

Haven and other political observers are still eyeing the outcome of key races to see whether they shift the State Senate to the Democratic Party. The Senate is currently split 33-29 in favor of the Republicans.

Even if the Democrats do eke out a majority, it could be rendered almost meaningless. The Independent Democratic Conference, a rogue group of four Democrats led by Bronx State Sen. Jeffrey Klein, is in a position to play the spoiler and could decide to align with the current majority of Republicans. Newly elected Brooklyn State Sen. Simcha Felder has said he will caucus with the Republicans. And, perhaps most importantly, the Democrats have long fallen out of favor with the state's popular governor.

“The governor, given his popularity, institutional powers and demonstrated capacity for negotiating has the upper hand one way or another," Haven said, adding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the IDC are also politically aligned. “The IDC is in tune with the governor’s agenda. They are fiscally conservative and support more liberal social issues.”

Former Gov. David Paterson wrote in The Times Union this Sunday: “Rising above all this political uncertainty is one simple fact: No matter what happens come January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will end up a winner either way.

If the Republicans return to power, the governor will still have an ally on his important economic agenda of job creation, low taxes and regulatory relief. If the Democrats win, Cuomo will be able to pass the social agenda that has been stymied by the Republicans: minimum wage, campaign finance reform and more intelligent marijuana possession laws.

Cuomo has tried to stay above the fray, instead focusing his political energy on the storm cleanup.

"The Assembly will pick a leader, and the Senate will pick a leader. And I have no intention of getting involved in either situation," Cuomo said at a press conference last week, while underscoring that he thought Democrats learned a lesson the last time they were in control of the Senate. "I think they learned the hard way. The Democrats were in power. The Democrats then lost power because of the dysfunction and I think they learned that lesson the hard way."

In 2008, Democrats took control of the Senate Majority, but first they had to win the support of the self-titled Four Amigos, comprised of Sens. Carl Krueger, Ruben Diaz, Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate. The four realized the Democrats needed their votes to elect a majority leader held out until they received the terms they wanted to support Sen. Malcolm Smith. The men won prominent committee seats, staffing and, according to some, received guarantees from Smith about what legislation he would introduce. In June 2009, Espada and Monserrate got a better offer from Sen. Dean Skelos and launched the coup that paralyzed the Legislature for months.

But while no one in Albany wants to see a repeat, those groups who have seen their agendas sidelined by the Republicans are hoping the Democrats gain the Majority.

Michael McKee, the treasurer of Tenants PAC, a political action committee dedicated to keeping apartments affordable for New Yorkers, had trouble sleeping on election night as he watched the results come in.

That's because the group he works for had poured thousands of dollars into the campaigns of Senate Democrats across the state: They had given $ 6,000 to Cecelia Tkaczyk in the 46th Senate Districtand held a fundraiser for her; another 10,300 had gone to George Latimer in eastern Westchester County; $7,000 to Queens Sen. Joe Addabbo; $4,000 to Justin Wagner; $6,000 to Nassau County's Ryan Cronin; and $2,000 to Ted Obrien.

One after another, McKee watched as the candidates they supported won their races or edged ahead as recounts loomed. "I was so excited, I couldn't sleep," McKee said.

But in the days since election night, McKee's fervor has turned to caution.

For years, Tenants PAC has worked with one goal in mind: Elect as many Democrats as possible to the State Senate who would be willing to help to pass legislation that protects housing for working class New Yorkers.

“We worked very hard to help the Democrats win the Senate. And we also helped upgrade the Senate. We are proud of that,” said McKee, who said he gave Tkacyzk a few hundred dollars or his own money. “We are proud of replacing Sen. Pedro Espada with Sen. Gustavo Rivera. But if the Republicans or Jeff Klein is in charge, we have no chance. I would rather see them remain in the minority for two years rather than make a deal like last time."

Business groups are worried about what the Senate Democrats might mean for their agenda.

"I didn't know whether to chuckle or cry," Michael Durant, New York state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, told Crains New York. "Unfortunately, it appears in some races that are essential to the Senate that economic development and jobs were not the central theme."

Brian Sampson of Unshackle Upstate, a conservative business group, told the newspaper that life would be a bit more difficult with a closely split Senate.  

"I don't care if you're the business community or the ultra-progressive left," he said. "Any bill that has any controversy to it is just going to take that much longer to get to the floor. And once it gets there, you're going to have to work that much harder to get it passed or get it defeated."

A number of Albany insiders say Senate Democrats realize that they have to appeal to businesses interests and upstaters — especially because the seats they gained this year and seem poised to gain are upstate and to keep those seats they will need to tend to their issues.

Sen. Michael Gianaris, head of the State Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, has said repeatedly that his conference is committed to promoting a “pro-business” agenda.

The United Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers also publicly backed a number of Senate Democrats and have a lot invested in the outcome of the battle for control of the Senate. NYSUT reportedly spent $500,000 to help Addabbo retain his seat.

Teacher unions are very interested in countering Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans for school reforms and his continued push for concessions from unions. Clearly they felt a Democratic Majority in the Senate would help blunt Cuomo’s agenda, but it isn’t clear if a coalition government would help them at all.

But it isn’t just those who gave money who are concerned with who will control the Senate when session starts next January.

Gene Russianoff, of The New York Public Interest Group’s Straphangers Campaign, says funding of the MTA is also very much at stake. If Senate Republicans get what they want, the mobility tax on areas served by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would be completely repealed.

“It is widely perceived among Republicans that it is a highly unpopular tax. They eliminated it last year for some small business and it cost the budget$300,000 that Gov. Cuomo found the cash to replace,” he said. Russianoff noted that Democrats passed the tax by party line in 2009, so it is likely that the tax battle would split down party lines.

But Haven, of NYPIRG, said that post Sandy, the people will want to be sure their leaders are focused on fixing things quickly.

“From now on, I think we are going to look at everything the state does through the lens of how we deal with disasters," he said. "People want a smart government that is ready to deal with how we move forward.”

State Senate Democrats Grasp For Control Of Chamber


ALBANY, N.Y. — It wasn’t quite Babe Ruth pointing to the stands, but the call Democratic state Sen. Neil Breslin made on the day before this week’s election was nearly a home run.

“I think we are going to hold our seats downstate, pick up a seat in Rochester, and I really think Cecilia is going to win,” Breslin said on Monday. The Cecilia he was referring to was Cecilia Tkaczyk, the Democratic candidate for the 46th Senate District that was supposed to have been hand-carved for the Republicans to bolster their majority.

Forgive Breslin, then, for gloating a bit about the prediction: New Yorkers woke up today to learn that Senate Democrats had picked up a seat in Rochester and that Tkaczyk, once a long-shot candidate, was on the cusp of victory with 140 more votes than her opponent, with paper ballots still needing to be counted.

“I was giving the best-case-scenario!” Breslin said in an interview yesterday when asked about the prediction. “I think it was a perfect storm.”

Democrats also successfully defended their vulnerable seats while adding at least two to change the balance of power in the Senate, even if modestly, tying the Republicans 31 to 31 (it is currently 33 to 20). Tkaczyk's surprising strength in the 46th district could turn out to be the wild card that pushes control of the Senate over the edge for the Democrats.

The Republicans’ hand-picked candidate, Assemblyman George Amedore, seemed like the perfect choice to win the district that was tailored to the party: He had name recognition following a reality television show appearance and is well-known developer.

But Tkaczyk, a farmer, challenged him in a spirited contest, with her grassroots campaign bolstered by major PAC support to close the gap on Amedore. Early yesterday morning, both candidates declared victory but Tkaczyk held a 140 vote lead over Amedore.

Breslin, who lost part of his district to the 46th, called Tkaczyk “a mother running against a one percent builder in a toss up district.”

“If we win the district, it will be poetic justice because they carved that district out to insulate their majority,” he said.

The major deciding factor will likely be the affidavit ballots filed at the University at Albany. Democrats believe that those ballots will break heavily in their candidate’s favor. Republicans say they have the clear lead when it comes to outstanding ballots.

Amedore’s camp has filed a suit to impound all paper ballots in the 46th district and his spokesman issued this statement: “This morning, we filed a show cause order in Montgomery County Supreme Court to protect and substantiate each and every ballot. ... We firmly believe that once all the votes have been verified and counted, George Amedore will be the senator representing this five-county district. We will proceed with patience and confidence as this process moves forward.”

Even after legal maneuvers, if the Senate Democrats pick up the seat in the 46th, they will need the Independent Democratic Conference to work with them. The IDC broke from the Democrats in 2010 and quickly benefitted from an alliance with Republicans. While Democrats lost funding and nice offices, the IDC was treated rather well by Republicans.The IDC later backed Republicans on a number of important procedural votes.

Making matters even more complicated for the Democrats seeking to gain the majority, newly elected Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder, also a Democrat, has struck an independent note and could end up caucusing with Senate Republicans.

Members of the IDC did not return requests for comment yesterday, issuing a general statement that said nothing about whom they intended to conference with. “We look forward to getting back to the people’s business right away,” read the statement.

“If Tkaczyk wins, hopefully it allows Felder to caucus with us and I would welcome the four back into the fold as Democrats with no hard feelings,” said Breslin, who beat an IDC-backed primary challenger in September. “But they should not benefit from leaving.”

The Independent Democrats are led by Sen. Jeff Klein, whose ambition to take charge of the Senate Democrats has been well known for years. He has pledged not to vote for current Senate Minority Leader John Sampson or Sen. Michael Gianaris — the man who replaced Klein as the head of the New York State Senate Democratic Committee.

Both Senate Democrats and Republicans have been making pretty overt gestures toward Klein in the past few days.

Appearing on a talk radio show yesterday morning, Republican state Sen. Tom Libous, the head of Senate Republican election efforts, said this when asked about negotiating with Klein: “I think those conversations will take place shortly, but they haven’t taken place yet.”

Speaking about Tuesday’s election, Libous admitted “it was a tough night for us but all is not lost” and was optimistic that outstanding ballots in the 46th district would help them elect Amedore. “We’ve been through counts before,” Libous said. “While Democrats may have had a good ground game with the Obama massacre again, we do a better job with absentee ballots than they do. We work them pretty hard.”

On the same show, Gianaris repeated something that a number of Democrats have seemingly adopted as a mantra lately: that Klein has said that he will never vote for a Republican Majority Leader.

Beyond the question of whether the IDC will play nice with their former party peers, there is also the question of how Gov. Andrew Cuomo might react to a State Senate dominated by Democrats. It is widely believed that Cuomo would rather deal with a Republican Senate because it allows him to pass fiscally conservative measures — not to mention the chaos that unfolded when Democrats controlled the chamber from 2008 to 2010.

In a recent piece for State of Politics, Nick Reisman deftly pointed out that registration numbers in the state favor Democrats so strongly that it is only a matter of time before Democrats gain control of the chamber again and relegate Republicans to a consistently minority party.

“I hope the governor reads that article,” said one member of the Democratic conference, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He could be very helpful in getting the four back in the fold and making sure we have strong leadership.”


Image of voting booth in Rochester courtesy of Joe Philipson, used under Creative Commons license.

New Yorkers Line Polls To Vote Despite Storm Troubles


After the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy in the city, voting may have been a second thought for more than a few New Yorkers.

But for others it was worth standing on line in the cold for hours or trekking through their still blacked-out neighborhoods to be able to exercise their basic right to cast a ballot in the general election yesterday.

Voters took to the Internet to document their sometimes frustrating experience getting to the polls and casting their ballots.

There were broken voting machines in Manhattan. In Coney Island, voters waiting for rides on public shuttle buses to relocated polling places said they were passed by repeatedly without being picked up. At other sites, there were a shortage of ballots. And even Mayor Michael Bloomberg had trouble voting — he reached over the table and found his own name in the voter registry after a poll worker failed to do so.

City Councilman Jumaane Williams documented problems across his Brooklyn district on Twitter, including “insanely long” lines, shortages of pens, poll workers instructing voters to vote down one party line and voters simply being turned away. In some tweets, he addressed the city’s Board of Elections directly.

“This is outrageous, disgraceful and disrespectful to what voting should be @BOENYC I didn't think you could top the primary, but CONGRATS!” he wrote, referring to this year’s primary when the Board was criticized for handling vote counting in key races.

Board spokeswoman Valerie Vazquez said there were a number of difficulties during the day caused by the fallout from the storm. The Board consolidated or relocated about 60 poll sites that were damaged by the storm, and announced the new locations less than 72 hours before voting began.

“We worked diligently to communicate these changes to New York voters and our poll workers,” she said. “We know that some voters experienced long lines here in New York — much like voters across the United States — as is common with high voter turnout associated with a presidential election.”

Voters also encountered problems acting on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recently signed executive order that allowed New Yorkers to vote at any polling place in the state. Not only were displaced voters turned away in Manhattan and Queens, but also upstate in Rensselaer and Albany counties.

Good government and civil rights groups said they were swamped by calls from voters complaining and seeking assistance.

While the state was not considered competitive for the presidential election, with New York’s electoral votes going to Barack Obama as expected, the real fights were at the state and local levels.

In the 15th State Senate District in Queens, where Hurricane Sandy’s destruction is absolutely inescapable, Republican Councilman Eric Ulrich was challenging incumbent Democrat Sen. Joe Addabbo. Ulrich told reporters as he cast his ballot yesterday that Democrats were trying to “obstruct the election” by waiting until Monday to announce emergency polling places.

He and Addabbo both suspended their campaigns in the wake of the storm.

Sen. Joe Addabbo declared victory at Woodhaven House around 12:30 this morning. He told the crowd: “Our attention and prayers tomorrow should be to the victims of Hurricane Sandy." However, Urlich was not ready to concede and told supporters that paper ballots needed to be counted.

The outcome of the race in the 15th district could help determine the control of the State Senate. Republicans currently control 33 of 62 Senate seats.

Another key race, in the 46th Senate District upstate — created during the latest redistricting process — Cecelia Tkaczyk and Assemblyman George Amedore both declared victory. Early this morning, Tkaczyk was ahead by 139 votes but further counting is very likely. The district was thought by many to have been tailor-made by Republicans to secure them another Senate seat, but as election day neared Tkaczyk made large gains, according to a Siena College poll.

Democrats won a seat in Rochester where Ted O’Brien defeated Assemblyman Sean Hanna in a race to replace retiring Sen. James Alessi.

Republican Sen. James Saland, who voted for same-sex marriage, trailed his Democratic opponent Terry Gipson by 1,600 votes and a recount is expected.

The 40th district race between controversial Republican Sen. Greg Ball and Democratic challenger Justin Wagner appeared to be contested despite the fact that Ball declared victory early on in the night.

Steve Napier, a spokesman for Wagner, issued a statement saying the race was too close to call. "We will pursue a full and fair count of all ballots, and we are confident that in the end Justin Wagner will be seated in the New York State Senate,” he said in a statement.

Conservative Democrat Simcha Felder appeared to be the clear winner in the 17th district in Brooklyn. Felder has indicated he may caucus with Republicans despite the results of the election. The Daily News reported yesterday that a deal has already been struck for Felder to join the Republican Conference.

Further, if Democrats pull ahead in the count, they still may not gain control as the breakaway Independent Senate Democrats have vowed to stay independent no matter what the outcome of the election is.

Democrats appeared to pick up at least five seats in the Assembly. Assemblyman Vito Lopez won reelection despite the sexual harassment scandal that hangs over him. Another scandal plagued politician, Assemblyman William Boyland, also retained his seat.

Not enough votes had been counted by press time to determine the winner in the special election to fill the City Council seat in the Bronx vacated by disgraced politician Larry Seabrook. Former union organizer Andy King was leading, with 33 percent of precincts reporting.

Voting results are unofficial until they are certified by the BOE.


WNYC Election 2012 Map

NY1: Real Time Returns For New York City

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