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Skelos out, Flanagan in as State Senate majority leader

ALBANY – The second of Albany’s three power elites has fallen in less than four months.

Dean Skelos stepped down Monday as the Senate majority leader following his arrest earlier this month on federal corruption charges.

Skelos’ decision came after mounting public pressure and as rank-and-file Senate Republicans increasingly sent signals to him that he had to go after federal prosecutors accused him of extortion.

The Senate GOP Monday afternoon elected Sen. John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, to replace Skelos in a closed-door meeting that was, by Albany standards for such a thorny matter, remarkably quick: about two hours. “I have the support of the majority of the conference,’’ Flanagan told reporters shortly before 4 p.m.

Standing by his side was Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican, his opponent in the weekend sprint for the majority leader post.

Flanagan received 32 votes to secure the post, with one coming from a Democrat.

DeFrancisco said he told reporters in advance that the majority leader campaign “was not going to have a lot of theater, and that’s exactly what’s happening. We are a conference and we need each other … We’re unified.’’

Before anyone could change their minds, the Republicans quickly went into session after the appearance by Flanagan and DeFrancisco.

Skelos’ resignation, publicly called for by nearly a third of his GOP conference, came during a private meeting with Republican senators at the Capitol. Republicans said over the weekend that Skelos came to fully realize he had no chance of keeping his post, especially as the political heat began transferring from him to other Senate Republicans as they were back home in their districts over the past five days.

Skelos, 67, took over as GOP leader after former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno stepped down to deal with his own federal corruption charges, although Bruno was later acquitted.

Skelos, smiling, arrived at his Capitol office next to the GOP conference room about an hour before the gathering started.

DeFrancisco and Flanagan had shared a pizza Sunday night in Albany and could agree on one thing: Neither was stepping aside, yet, to make way for the other.

Lawmakers were a mix of candid and guarded. Three Long Island Republicans, in an elevator ride up to the Capitol’s third floor, were in a joking mood, but offered no opinion on Skelos’ resignation or his possible replacement.

“Choosing a leader is a conference decision and it will be made by the members,” Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican, said when asked who she is backing for majority leader. “I’m going to do what’s best for the taxpayers of my district.”

Republicans say Young over the weekend was one of the upstate Republicans siding with Flanagan, which led to a flurry of outreaches by upstate Republicans to convince her to join the DeFrancisco camp. Republicans have said Young was looking at becoming deputy majority leader either immediately – or when Sen. Tom Libous, a Binghamton Republican who currently holds the post, might step down. Libous has been in Florida fighting cancer and he faces a July trial on charges he lied to the FBI during its investigation of his son’s business dealings.

Among Young’s critics Sunday was Carl Paladino, the conservative Republican Buffalo businessman and failed 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate. He sent an email to Young, obtained by The Buffalo News Sunday afternoon, saying that he would ensure she faces a “blistering primary” next year if she backs Flanagan.

Skelos has led the Senate GOP during a rollicking several years when the Republicans lost their majority in the Senate, got it back, then had to share power with a small group of renegade Democrats before winning enough seats in the last November elections to regain a 32-seat majority in the 63-member Senate.

Most everyone at the Capitol except Skelos seemed to realize he eventually would have to depart as majority leader. It was a quick timeline.

He was arrested on May 4 and later that night his GOP colleagues embraced him.

But by the next day, fissures began appearing among his colleagues.

On Wednesday, a half-dozen Senate Republicans, including newcomer Sen. Rob Ortt from North Tonawanda, were calling for his ouster. Joining them was a growing number of county GOP chairs, including the Erie County GOP.

Skelos’ office, though, released statement Wednesday night, with 15 Senate Republicans expressing their unwavering support for their leader.

On Thursday, Skelos sought to play the normalcy card, releasing a statement on his policy priorities for the coming weeks before the 2015 session ended.

The support was based, in part, on long memories of some veteran senators who knew that Skelos, long before he became majority leader, ran the once-a-decade redistricting process for re-drawing Senate district lines that favor Republicans in a state that has become decidedly more blue in recent time.

After Bruno’s fall in 2008, Skelos used his power base – Long Island – to become one of Albany’s three-men-in-a-room club.

He negotiated multi-billion dollar government deals with two governors – David A. Paterson and Andrew M. Cuomo – and had a mostly off-again personal relationship with former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was forced to resign the top Assembly post after federal prosecutors accused him of using his office to enrich himself.

There are many ways to describe Skelos’ job. But he did it best, in a phone call to his son at some point before the start of the 2015 session that the FBI intercepted on a wiretap.

“I’m going to be president of the Senate. I’m going to be majority leader. I’m going to control everything. I’m going to control who gets on what committees, what legislation goes to the floor, what legislation comes through committees, the budget, everything,” Skelos told his son, according to the transcript of the call in the criminal complaint filed against him.

Skelos held tremendous power, serving as the lead negotiator on behalf of the Senate on issues such as school aid funding, tax increases or tax breaks, social welfare spending, health care programs like Medicaid and policy matters from criminal justice to environmental programs.

Skelos, though, had his detractors within the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Some praised his insistence on blocking any expansion of abortion rights in New York, but wondered why he spent so much of the past four years cozying up to Cuomo.

It was Skelos who, ultimately, allowed his chamber to take the vote legalizing gay marriage – which eventually contributed to the departure or defeat of the four Senate Republicans who voted for the measure.

He also allowed a vote and approval of the still-controversial SAFE Act gun control law.

“There were glimmers that he could have brought back the Republican base, but he became so politically tied to the governor trying to hold onto that position of power that he sold his soul little by little," said the Rev. Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a conservative religious organization.

Affable and a relentless political fundraiser, Skelos – often well-tanned following trips to a place he owns in Florida – was first elected to the Senate in 1984 after serving two years in the state Assembly. His focus was Senate GOP-centric, so much so that he often angered some Republicans with other political interests.

In Cuomo, he had a Democratic governor who made clear his belief that he could get more centrist types of policy and spending measures passed so long as Republicans stayed in control of the Senate.

In 2012, Skelos got the ultimate protection from Cuomo. He cut a deal to draw new Senate district lines that benefited Republican candidates despite the governor’s campaign pledge to make more fair the once-a-decade redistricting process.

Like most downstate Republicans, Skelos has a mixed record of supporting issues across a wide range of the political spectrum.

He pressed for the property tax cap and helped Cuomo get four on-time budgets in a row. He tried, without success, to please religious school advocates such as the Catholic Church by pushing a tax credit measure meant to boost enrollment in the private schools. He was the Senate author of the state’s sex offender registry program, and he sponsored laws to eliminate the statute of limitations in rape cases.

Skelos, who lives in Rockville Center in Nassau County, is a Fordham Law School graduate.

After his arrest, he had his backers.

“Sen. Skelos believes he’s innocent and I believe him … I think he’s a fine man,”’ said Sen. Hugh Farley, a Schenectady County Republican.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com