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Democrats, Republicans paint different picture in potential State Senate power shift

ALBANY – For upstate and Western New York, the realignment agreement Democrats reached this week to take control of the State Senate this fall is going to be the best thing that can happen.

Or, it’s going to be a disaster.

The first scenario is laid out by Democrats, who announced Wednesday that a splinter group that had aligned with Republicans are returning to the fold so that Democrats can gain control of the Senate.

The second scenario comes from Republican senators, who have shared control of the Senate with the small group of independent Democrats the past couple years.

Democrats still must win re-election contests this fall to take back the Senate, especially since one Brooklyn Democrat will continue to sit with the Republicans.

But with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s blessing, this new alignment could very well be in power.

Already, Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican who perhaps is the region’s most vulnerable in November’s elections, was using the prospects of a downstate-dominated Democratic takeover as fuel for his campaign.

“This is upstate-downstate,” Grisanti said.

“Upstate will not have a say in the Senate,” he said, if Democrats succeed in controlling the Senate. And that is on top of downstate Democrats dominating the Assembly.

The region’s sole Democratic lawmaker in the Senate, Tim Kennedy of Buffalo, called such worries “a farce.”

“It’s not an argument based on facts. The fact is Republicans oversaw the greatest decline in the upstate economy in the last 40 to 50 years in the majority,” said Kennedy, who would be the sole lawmaker from Western New York in the majority if Democrats gain majority control of the Senate.

Republicans also felt confused – at the least – by Cuomo’s role in the Senate Democratic realignment that Jeff Klein, a co-leader of the independent Democrats, announced as the governor cheered him on. Klein said he will strike a new deal with other Democrats in the fall that will oust Republicans from generations of dominance in the senior chamber. A month ago, in order to win the backing of the liberal Working Families Party for his re-election, Cuomo said he would work to help Democrats take control of the Senate.

But he then spent the past month boasting of his relations and ability to work with Senate Republicans, using six Republicans as event props in three separate public gatherings around the state this week, while privately helping to negotiate a deal to oust the GOP.

Many Senate Republicans believed that Cuomo doesn’t want Democrats running the Senate, and several stuck to that point while blaming New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for orchestrating the realignment deal with Klein as a way to diffuse Democratic primaries against Klein and possibly other members of his five-member Independent Democratic Conference.

“I can’t figure it out,” Grisanti said of Cuomo’s off-again, on-again, off-again public rhetoric about Senate Republicans. “It’s kind of a shock to me," adding he found Cuomo’s involvement in the effort “a bit of a disappointment.”

Power of majority

Power in the legislature depends on numbers and seniority. It means the lawmakers in charge – or in the majority – get first dibs on policy and fiscal matters.

They also get committee chairmanships where they can mightily influence legislation.

And perhaps most important for local taxpayers and parents, the majority legislators are in the private meetings at budget time when formulas are devised that determine how much individual school districts receive in state aid.

“The reality of Albany is when you are in the majority you get more things accomplished … We see it in the Assembly where Assembly Republicans get very little in school aid increases,” Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican, said of the GOP’s position in the minority in the Assembly.

In addition, the majority leaders set the legislative agendas.

If Democrats take over the Senate, industry lobbyists say it is hard to imagine how some business agenda items – like union-opposed proposals to reduce certain kinds of mandates on everything from public works construction projects to public employee labor contract negotiations – will remain even on life support since they already have found no backing in the Assembly or governor’s office.

A New York City-dominated Legislature, along with downstate-based statewide office-holders, could be bad news for upstate businesses and residents, said Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate.

“Where’s our voice? Who’s going to represent our interest, which is clearly not aligned with New York City tax-and-spend agenda that we’ve been fighting for decades," he said.

Western New York is now represented by five Senate Republicans in the majority with a total constituent pool of about 1.5 million people.

“All you have to do is look at a map at where the Republicans are from in the Senate and where the Democrats are from…It’s almost like upstate will be forgotten about,” Grisanti said.

Ire at Cuomo role

Republicans like Grisanti and Maziarz have been among Cuomo’s biggest GOP cheerleaders in Albany. On Thursday, not so much.

After first blaming de Blasio for the Democratic deal, Maziarz was asked if he still thinks Cuomo is a great guy.

Maziarz said he believed that the New York City mayor used his ties with the Working Families Part, which is dominated by union interests, to push Klein to break from his GOP alliance. The Senate GOP’s attitude toward Cuomo is one of “disappointment,” he said.

In an interview Thursday with The Buffalo News, Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, criticized the deal that involved Cuomo, de Blasio and Klein. He said Cuomo had a “failure in character" moment for failing to stand up to de Blasio and the Working Families Party when receiving the party’s endorsement a month ago. If the Legislature becomes dominated by New York City Democrats, de Blasio will become “the de facto governor" of the state, he predicted.

Four years ago, Skelos said, Cuomo dictated demands to the Working Families Party for him to run on their line.

“This time it was the timid Andrew Cuomo who sold out politically and governmentally to the Working Families Party and what they represent,” he said.

A Cuomo spokesman declined to comment on Skelos’ remarks.

During that time, a deal was in the works for the Democrats to gain control of the Senate.

“I think what he was doing by embracing Republicans at events is sending a message of bipartisanship while in the background he is basically looking to destroy bipartisanship in this state and have totally New York City dominance and takeover of the state,” Skelos said of Cuomo.

On Wednesday Cuomo said he backed the new Democratic leadership deal because he wants a more “progressive" package of bills to get approved and Senate Republicans were unwilling to move. That includes a taxpayer-funded campaign finance system, expanded abortion rights and a bill to permit children of illegal immigrants to obtain state aid for college tuition.

But Skelos dismissed Cuomo’s claim that Republicans wouldn’t help him with a more “progressive” agenda, noting that Cuomo, with Republicans in partial control of the Senate, passed a major gun control law, legalization of marriage rights for gays and an increase in the minimum wage.

Democrats dismiss the GOP’s arguments as mere scare tactics.

Kennedy, of Buffalo, said there are Democratic senators scattered across upstate from Buffalo and Rochester to Syracuse and Albany and down into the mid- to lower-Hudson Valley. And he noted that in the Senate’s current configuration, the greatest concentration of majority power rests in the hands of Long Island-based GOP senators.

“The focus on upstate is not going to change. It’s only going to be enhanced,” Kennedy said.

Interestingly, Kennedy faces his own primary challenge from Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant. And Klein, in a public radio interview Thursday, did not rule out continuing to support Grant – despite the deal he cut to share power with Kennedy and the other members of the main Senate Democratic conference.

Kennedy didn’t specifically comment on Klein’s potential continued help of Grant, other than to say he is “fully prepared to win the race.”

Senate Democrats are hopeful to add even more upstate Democrats to their fold this fall, Kennedy said, and some are eyeing Grisanti as a target.

“In the district I represent, nothing will be better than a Democratic majority,” Kennedy said.

And what about residents in the five districts now represented by Republican senators?

“The bottom line is all of upstate depends upon the leadership of the governor and the leaders of the Assembly and Senate working in a collaborative fashion,” Kennedy said.