ALBANY – Embraced just two days ago by Republican colleagues, Dean Skelos is now in a high-stakes fight to check a growing number of GOP lawmakers calling for his ouster as Senate majority leader.
Perhaps the most politically disciplined group in Albany, the 32-member Senate GOP conference is now in disarray. Accustomed to working out differences behind closed doors and then putting on a unity display in public, that act is over.
Six Republican lawmakers – 22 percent of the conference – have said Skelos needs to resign his leadership post. Freshman Sen. Rob Ortt of North Tonawanda is the only Western New Yorker to make such a demand so far. In fact, he declaring his intent next week to either join with Democratic efforts to get a motion on the Senate floor to oust Skelos or he will propose one of his own.
The Skelos camp is taking the ouster attempts seriously, sending an email Wednesday night that provided the names of 15 GOP senators and one Democratic senator from Brooklyn who said they “strongly believe” that Skelos needs to stay on as leader.
“He has the leadership we need to move the Senate forward so that we can continue to do the people’s work and finish out this year’s session in a productive manner," the senators wrote.
The senators signing the Skelos loyalty oath include his eight colleagues from Long Island and a smattering Republicans across several upstate areas. The lone Republican on the list from Western New York was Sen. Catharine Young of Olean.
Not on the list is Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican who chairs the Senate finance committee and is considered a close personal friend of Skelos. DeFrancisco is among the short list of candidates eyeing Skelos’ job if he steps down.
Also not on the list is Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican. In a phone interview Thursday morning, Ranzenhofer said he saw the letter signed by the 16 senators supporting Skelos.
Why didn’t he sign it?
“I stand by my statement, which is that I’m very concerned about the allegations against the leader and I am concerned about the distraction it has caused," Ranzenhofer said. “And what I’m doing is trying to work with my colleagues to get a solution to this problem."
Ranzenhofer would not say if he believes Skelos should stay or go.
He said he is hearing from constituents on the matter, but would not characterize how large a volume of letters and calls he has received.
Asked if Skelos will survive the weekend, Ranzenhofer responded: “I would surmise that all of us are working together to try to come up with an answer to this."
Skelos used the power of his office and his political charm to keep his nearly all his colleagues on his side, calling rank-and-file members into his Capitol office to make his case.
But the Senate ended its session for the week Wednesday afternoon, and lawmakers went home, where constituents are all but certain to grab them over the days ahead to talk about the Skelos affair.
Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican and one of those who did not sign the Skelos support letter, was not immediately available for comment Thursday morning.
The state Conservative Party chairman, Michael Long, whose small but influential party helped Republicans re-take the Senate, said Skelos needs to leave his position, in part, because of the impact it risks having on all Senate Republicans.
“I worked very hard to help win back the Senate majority, but we won’t keep the Senate majority if they continue to go down this road,” Long said Thursday morning.
He characterized as dangerous the views of some Senate Republicans who this week dismissed political fallout worries because the 2016 campaign season is a long way off.
Long said he talked to Skelos two days ago.
“I’m not going to say anything different to you than to the senator,” Long said in the interview. “I think it’s admirable that his members are loyal, but as the leader of the conference he has an obligation to be loyal to them. He has to understand he is not helping the conference."
Long said the cloud over Skelos – even with the presumption of innocent until proven guilty – is distracting at an important time when the legislative session is coming to a close next month. And, he said, it risks the future of some Senate Republicans.
Asked if Skelos will survive the weekend as leader, Long said Skelos told him he is innocent of the corruption charges and won’t be driven from office.
“We ended the conversation in disagreement … The longer he stays, then it becomes a problem for each and every senator. Then it becomes a campaign problem for them next year,’’ Long said.