The recent arrest and ouster of New York Senate Temporary President and Majority Leader Dean Skelos fueled brief speculation on his replacement in the furious days leading up to that fateful Albany conclave on May 11. A couple of Western New Yorkers’ names were floated early on, but prospects for their election were quickly dashed in the face of a Long Island bloc and upstate members loyal to the outgoing and incoming leader.
While Olean Sen. Catharine M. Young’s election by her peers would have broken the glass ceiling into the proverbial room from which three (sometimes four) men have essentially governed the state since those little get-togethers began, perhaps more consequential for our area would have been the naming of a senator of either gender as the first majority caucus leader of either house to come from Western New York in 43 years.
Most would agree the city or county called “home” by a state comptroller, attorney general, lieutenant governor or second in command of a state legislative body can prove beneficial to the region wherein the officeholder resides.
And though most concede that U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Lt. Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul and our congressional representatives have paid extremely close attention to Buffalo Niagara, many seasoned observers of New York politics generally hold to the conventional wisdom that the real test of a region’s political influence and geographic importance is having a native son or daughter actually sitting as governor, State Senate majority leader, Assembly speaker or one of the state’s two U.S. senators.
Leaving aside the fact that Western New York was once a land of presidents (and historically significant Iroquois leaders, for that matter) perhaps few indicators tell the tale of decades of population loss, changing demographics and economic and political decline more starkly and sadly than the absence of someone from our region occupying at least one of the five offices mentioned above. One has only to look back a few years to the state largess that poured into the Capital District under the sway of the later disgraced and dethroned Senate leader Joseph Bruno – whose career also ended amid criminal charges – to understand the importance of these key positions.
Some contend, and rightly so, that this kind of concentration of power is exactly what’s wrong with politics, especially the New York State Legislature, which the Brennan Center has called “the most dysfunctional legislature” among the 50 states. However, given a politically, if not constitutionally, dominant Empire State governor’s office – one that frequently serves as a springboard for presidential aspirations – it’s also true that strong legislative leaders, especially those from upstate, can and do serve as effective checks on, and loyal opponents of, downstate governors of either party. Divided government, both politically and geographically, though messy at times, is essential to a healthy democracy.
The last time the eight counties of Western New York boasted of a State Senate chief (there were six) was when Earl W. Brydges of Niagara Falls left that post in 1972. He was preceded by one of the most effective politicos ever to hail from Buffalo. The venerable Walter J. Mahoney, who has a state building named for him downtown, presided over the Senate from 1954 to 1964, causing agita for any governor, presidential candidate or legislative rival who dared underestimate his skillfulness and resolve. Historians and pundits speculated that, had it not been for the overwhelming wealth of Nelson A. Rockefeller, the Queen City would have again possessed the governorship through the election of the shrewd, refined Mahoney. Save for one year of Democratic rule in the Senate, during the nearly two decades in which they held the reins, Mahoney and Brydges ensured the Niagara Region a seat at the table with downstate governors and speakers.
Ah, if only for a return of those heady days. As history would have it, after three predecessors from the immediate region, Grover Cleveland among them, not one Western New Yorker has signed a legislative bill (unless in an acting capacity) in the governor’s ornate ceremonial chamber since Frank Higgins (also of Olean) presided there during 1905-06. Terms were shorter back then. And engaged voters didn’t need a referendum on term limits; they just threw out the bums, or many of them anyway.
The last U.S. senator (there were three) to hail from one of New York’s westernmost counties was Charles E. Goodell of Jamestown, who was appointed in 1968 by Rockefeller to fill the seat of the assassinated Bobby Kennedy, and then defeated in the election of 1970.
Western New York had five speakers of the Assembly, the latest being Joseph A. McGinnies, another son of Chautauqua County, who wielded the gavel from 1925 to 1934. However, we have not had the good fortune to have a House speaker or U.S. vice president.
To be sure, our congressmen have made their marks: Jack Kemp, of Hamburg, was an ideological leader in the House, secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a vice presidential candidate; Barber Conable, of Alexander, had considerable influence as ranking minority member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and as president of the World Bank; and Bill Miller, of Lockport, who became Barry Goldwater’s running mate in 1964, was later featured as an all-but-forgotten figure on one of American Express’ clever TV commercials. There were other federal representatives, but citizens still tend to look to the sustained and vigorous impact and influence available to the “select five,” when they are allowed to stay in office for a while.
Despite Buffalo’s recent resurgence, it’s questionable whether the region will ever again possess the magic combination of votes, money and talent necessary to fill one of those five top spots with one of its own. To those who say that geography doesn’t matter, tell that to the people of southeastern New York, who have controlled most of these powerful offices during the modern era. If the ousters of both legislative leaders and an unsuccessful Buffalo-based gubernatorial candidacy have not yet provided our long-beleaguered area the opportunity of having one of its own fill the high seats, what will?
Richard L. Taczkowski served as an Assembly staffer and local elected official in southern Erie County. A public policy and history researcher, he is considering a book on the 50 or 100 most important political and governmental figures ever to emerge from Western New York.