ALBANY – In July of 2009, John J. Flanagan Jr. was vacationing with his wife and three children at Letchworth State Park.
Back in Albany, Republicans had led a coup to retake the Senate, albeit temporarily. But the takeover needed every GOP member in the chamber when the Senate was called into session each day.
What was Flanagan, a Republican senator from Suffolk County, to do – anger his colleagues or anger his family?
Flanagan, with a reputation as a problem solver and coalition builder, chose to side with both. He spent as much time as he could with his family each day at the park – which he calls one of the “coolest” places in New York State – before driving 270 miles to Albany to spend five minutes on the floor for the brief sessions.
After the five-minute session ended, he then got back in his car and drove four hours or more to Letchworth. He did this over five days of his vacation.
“I don’t know how much of a vacation it was,” Flanagan recalled in an interview this week, a day after he was elected Senate majority leader.
John Flanagan is a family man. Flanagan says so. So do his colleagues and his longtime friends. The epic Letchworth-Albany road trip vacation would seem to offer some proof of that.
Flanagan takes over as Senate leader at a challenging time, following the resignation Sen. Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, from the position after federal felony corruption charges were filed against him. The state budget might be healthy, but Albany is not. The last five Senate leaders have gotten into criminal trouble either during or after their reigns.
The longtime Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, stepped down Feb. 2 following his corruption charges arrest. Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, says he is still seeking to uncover wrongdoing at the Capitol.
And Flanagan is taking control of the Senate just as Albany begins its annual end-of-session chaos, a period when dozens of major policy matters will appear on the negotiating table and rank-and-file lawmakers will be demanding passage of hundreds of local-related bills.
“I welcome it, but I do worry a bit, of course. I think it’s human nature,” Flanagan said of his job in an interview with The Buffalo News.
Student of the issues
Flanagan, 54, has a long reputation with Albany insiders as a student of the issues. Some lawmakers spend little time actually reading bills, but Flanagan, following in the path of his father, a former assemblyman, has a voracious appetite for reading up on and talking policy matters.
As chairman of the committee on education, Flanagan has spent much of his time on the subject in the last four years. He understands, as much as anyone, the state’s extraordinarily complex annual maze that devises the school funding formula. He understands the problems related to Common Core-based standardized tests but insists that better training for teachers is the key to improving student performance.
Lawmakers say Flanagan has the ability to understand the differences, needs and problems facing a state education system that runs through economic and geographic boundaries.
Given the size of the education budget and its bread-and-butter status for millions of New Yorkers, the education post can be, in the hands of the right lawmaker, one of the most powerful in the Legislature.
Flanagan grabbed the duties of that job and ran with it to be one of the state’s most influential education policymakers, colleagues say.
Taking pride in details
In Flanagan’s first private briefing for Senate Republicans on education issues during state budget talks in 2011, lawmakers took notice.
“He gave a presentation as if he had been involved in education for his entire life,” Sen. Andrew J. Lanza, R-Staten Island, said of Flanagan’s briefing that got into the details of challenges in education facing Buffalo, New York City and other communities across the state.
“When he sat down and was finished, the overwhelming impression of the conference was, ‘Where did he come from? That was amazing,’ ” Lanza recalled.
Flanagan and Lanza are close personal friends. Lanza said Flanagan helped him get through the difficult period after his mother died soon after he was sworn in as a senator in 2007.
There is a reason that Flanagan could help. While he was jogging with his father on a high school track in 1986, the elder Flanagan had a fatal heart attack.
Flanagan and Lanza have been tight. They have sat next to each other in the back of the third-floor Capitol conference room where Republicans meet in private. And Flanagan writes a good – or bad – Irish joke for the Italian-American lawmaker every March 12 when Lanza holds an annual St. Patrick’s Day-themed political fundraiser back on Staten Island.
Flanagan talks often of his father, who served in the GOP minority in the Assembly and today has a reputation has one of the best minds and debaters in recent decades in Albany. He said he and his father talked regularly talked politics, but not about him ever joining the Legislature.
“My goal was to practice law with my father,” said Flanagan, who has a 1983 bachelor’s degree from the College of William & Mary and a 1990 law degree from Touro College. That never happened after the sudden death of his 50-year-old father, and he was thrust into the career of state lawmaker.
“When he passed, the (GOP) committee really reached out to young John … to take his dad’s place in the Assembly,” said Toni Tepe, Republican chairwoman in the Town of Huntington. “We really threw him into the maze of government all at one time. He was a young, aspiring individual who we recognized over the years had great potential.”
Tepe lives in the same Suffolk County town as Flanagan. A former state assemblywoman, she has known the new Senate leader since he was 3. Flanagan’s father was her political mentor.
A day after becoming one of the most powerful figures in state government, Flanagan was thinking back to the time when he decided to move back in with his parents after college – a decision that got him some ribbing at the time.
“It was one of the smartest things I ever did, without even realizing it, because I got all that time with my father, who died when I was 25,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan has run on the Republican and Conservative party lines. Since 2013, when he voted for the SAFE Act gun-control law, he has been especially unpopular with gun ownership rights groups. But Flanagan knows his district, where education issues – and property taxes – rule. The Senate’s 2nd District has a population of more than 300,000 that is over 80 percent white.
In his own biography listed in the official Red Book in the early 1990s, Flanagan described himself as being “widely known for examining even the smallest details of an issue.”
Flanagan today says his detail-diving ways are driven by a simple ethic. “There’s an element of pride,” he said. “I take what I do seriously, so I want to know what I’m talking about.”
Flanagan is known as an “institution guy,” which appeals to many lawmakers who voted for him this week. They say his years spent without power as a member of the Assembly’s Republican minority keeps him hungry in the Senate, where the GOP holds a slim majority.
Friends say Flanagan feels a special obligation to his job that he took over from a deceased father who was known for doing his homework on policy and fiscal matters.
“He admires so much and respects so much the work that his father did that it’s something he carries with him to this day,” Lanza said. “… He has this incredible love of this institution that he serves and respect for it, and that’s important because you want people here who believe in this process and not because it’s a trophy on the wall or a title or a press release or Facebook entry.”
John Flanagan might be the first legislative leader in New York who was once a card-carrying member of the longshoremen’s union.
In college, he worked at the Fulton Fish Market in New York City delivering fish. His first job was as a newspaper carrier for Newsday. He worked as a cashier at two supermarkets and had a stint at International Paper. He said he never participated in a public protest.
Flanagan met his wife, Lisa Perez, of Silver Spring, Md., through his brother-in-law. She has a master’s degree from Gallaudet College and works as a consultant to Long Island’s Northport School District, running an anti-poverty, student-based club whose work includes humanitarian volunteer duties in New York, post-Katrina help in New Orleans and twice-yearly trips to Nicaragua to bring supplies and build everything from houses to latrines in low-income villages and neighborhoods.
Ask the usual profile questions about music or film or book likes, and Flanagan turns it to his family.
“My favorite thing to listen to is my daughter singing because she’s been blessed with a God-given talent,” he said of his 26-year-old, who has a degree in musical theater and is doing work on Broadway.
His middle child, a 25-year-old son, is working and going to school for chemical engineering, and his youngest, a 21-year-old son, is finishing up his junior year in the environmental studies program at the University at Buffalo.
“I know where Duff’s is,” said Flanagan, a third-generation American with Irish and German roots.
Flanagan, who lives four miles from the house where he grew up, describes himself as a “low-key” person whose idea of a good day is spending time on the beach with his family at Robert Moses State Park on the Atlantic Ocean.
He and his wife drive a Toyota Highlander and a Toyota Solara. He played high school football, track, was vice president of his senior class and was on the honor roll at William & Mary.
He does have some experience in group dynamics: He was a resident assistant in his sophomore and junior years and head resident in his senior year of college.
Flanagan has done financially well in a side business with a Long Island law firm, though he quit the firm last week to focus on his new leadership post. Still, a snapshot of his finances portrays a New Yorker dealing with how to pay college bills and big property taxes on Long Island. He does not own a second home or boat, and his most recent ethics filing shows him with a $50,000 personal loan from a friend, Jennifer Lorenz, to pay for college costs and home improvements.
Colleagues say Flanagan also looks the part of political leader – handsome, 6-feet-2 and able to tell jokes one minute and talk complex policy or local politics the next. He seems, also, to be trying to hold a record, demonstrated again Wednesday at the Capitol after a meeting with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other legislative leaders, as the fastest speed-walker in Albany.
Flanagan is fiercely Republican. His friends say he recognizes that Albany has become a town that no longer practices the art of partisan players fighting during the day and then getting along once they leave the building. This is now a town where seemingly everything is personal. He says he knows the state, and especially upstate, because he has traveled for years throughout New York – including times in the last decade when he might have been testing the waters for some sort of statewide run.
Republicans say they hope his geographic outreach serves him in 2016, when the party tries to keep control of the Senate, a point Flanagan brought up on his own with a pledge to do “everything conceivable” to keep Democrats from taking over the Senate.
“He has the ability to look at the entire state as a whole, and while he does come from Long Island, he does have the capacity to reach out to other areas to make sure they are taken care of just as well,” Tepe said.
Michael Balboni came to the Assembly in 1990 and sat next to Flanagan, and the two ended up serving Long Island districts in the Senate. Their families have vacationed together, and Balboni recalled the day when he and Flanagan in 1998 were about to drive to the funeral of Assemblyman Anthony J. Genovesi, a Brooklyn Democrat.
One of Balboni’s daughters collapsed and went into a seizure. He and his wife rushed the girl to the hospital while Flanagan stayed behind at their Long Island house and took care of the couple’s two other young children, both under 5, for 12 hours. “He didn’t complain at all,” said Balboni, who today is a registered lobbyist.
Balboni said Flanagan has not been heavily involved in raising funds for the main Senate GOP campaign committee and will be on a quick learning curve to oversee what is essentially a statewide campaign operation for the Senate GOP in 2016.
But he said Flanagan knows well – after 16 years of working in the powerless political minority in the Assembly – what’s at stake. “You certainly appreciate what it’s like to be in the minority,” Balboni said. “You absolutely don’t want to go back.”