ALBANY – Striving to put back together a fractured Republican conference, GOP senators Monday quickly galvanized support to make Suffolk County’s Sen. John Flanagan their new majority leader and a member of Albany’s exclusive three-men-in-a-room system of government.
The ascension of Flanagan, who has served in the Legislature for 29 years, retains the Senate’s most powerful position squarely in the hands of Long Island. The Suffolk County Republican narrowly beat back a challenge from a Syracuse Republican to take over the majority leader’s job from Dean Skelos, who resigned his leadership post Monday afternoon, a week after his arrest on corruption charges.
The choice of Flanagan, on a unanimous public vote, came despite furious maneuvering by upstate interests, mostly politically conservative ones, that sought to strip Long Island of its influence and restore upstate’s possession of a position held for the past 100 years.
The action was intentionally quick in a bid to show GOP unity following a week of rare chaos for the Senate Republican conference. Delayed by more than two hours after one lawmaker got stuck in a traffic jam, Republicans went behind closed doors at about 1 p.m. and were done before 3:30 p.m. – taking up both the departure speech by Skelos and the vote that boosted Flanagan’s bid. Before any outside influence could be brought, Senate Republicans rushed to the floor to officially confirm Flanagan.
It was a strange sight, as Skelos sat in his Senate seat, applauding and voting for his successor. It was a repeat of the scene just down the hallway this past February when former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, pushed out of his leadership post following federal corruption charges against him, voted for his successor, Carl Heastie.
Flanagan sought to allay any upstate concerns that the Senate would be downstate-centric under his leadership. “There are regional differences that need to be respected. … We are one state,” he told his colleagues after the floor vote.
Flanagan received 32 votes in the 63-member chamber. While there are 32 GOP members, one GOP lawmaker – cancer-stricken Tom Libous of Binghamton, himself facing a July trial on charges of lying to the FBI during its probe of his son – was absent. Simcha Felder, a Democratic senator from Brooklyn who sits with the Republicans, provided the 32nd vote for Flanagan.
The day began with Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican, saying he had the votes to replace Skelos and telling reporters how he and Flanagan shared a pizza Sunday night in a meeting designed to reach a resolution before the leadership vote. They didn’t reach a deal.
After the vote, 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.’’
Flanagan sought to allay any public concerns about himself. In response to a reporter’s question about what assurances he could provide that he was not under investigation, “I don’t believe there’s anything to worry about.” He said he has given up his private law practice to focus on the majority leader’s job.
Before the GOP met in private, Sen. Catharine Young, an Olean Republican, would not say how she was going to vote; she had come under harsh criticism from some upstate conservatives, including Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, who said he’d back a “blistering” primary against her next year if she sided with “downstaters” in the Senate leadership fight.
In the end, sources said, Young and Finger Lakes Republican Michael Nozzolio were the sole GOP senators west of Syracuse to vote for Flanagan to replace Skelos.
In a statement, Young said Flanagan was backed by all Republicans and that he “committed to protecting every corner of the state.”
Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican, confirmed that he was one of those who voted for DeFrancisco; he said he based it on opinions he got over the past week from constituents and political leaders in the four counties he represents. But Gallivan said he met with Flanagan to assure him of his support and that Flanagan listened to his concerns about a need for the Senate to focus on economic and issues surrounding the Common Core standards, as well as how to relax some provisions of the NY Safe Act gun law.
“My obligation going forward is to now work with him for the best interests of my constituents,” Gallivan said.
In Flanagan, 54, the Senate gets a leader who is considered not only politically savvy but among the most policy-driven lawmakers in Albany. While some lawmakers leave details to staffers, Flanagan, as Senate Education Committee chairman, has been on the front row in talks over everything from the formula that provides annual school aid funding to how to address growing parent concern about standardized tests.
Flanagan served 16 years as a member of the Republican minority in the Assembly before getting elected to the Senate in 2002. His father, the late John Flanagan, also served in the Assembly.
For his part, Skelos, with his political world crumbling around him, tried on Monday to employ a stiff-upper-lip image, complete with broad smiles and handshakes for colleagues on the floor. Though last week he threatened to bring a world of dysfunction to the Republicans by resigning his seat, Skelos over the weekend was behind the scenes trying to help Flanagan rise to his job. Still, it was a quick and remarkable fall for Skelos, who just a month ago was negotiating a $150 billion state budget with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Heastie.
Skelos said he said he realized it was not worth fighting to remain in the job after seeing that his family’s privacy was invaded by a news photographer who went into the backyard of his son – who last week was charged with his father of six felony counts – and that the disruption caused his 2-year-old grandson to trip and cut his lip. His other reason for giving up his job had already become clear to nearly all of his colleagues.
“Quite frankly, I think I was somewhat of a distraction,” Skelos said after the floor vote.
Democrats on Monday say that while Cuomo kept his physical distance from the Capitol on Monday, he let it be known through channels that he preferred that DeFrancisco not win the majority leader’s job. DeFrancisco has a long tradition of speaking his mind, and in the past year or so he has often been critical of the Cuomo administration on a number of policy fronts.