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Democratic control of State Senate would make upstate a political afterthought

The upstate/downstate division is sometimes exaggerated, with upstate residents falsely believing that the New York City area is a net drain on state resources. In fact, upstate benefits greatly from revenues generated downstate.

Nevertheless, there is a demonstrable risk to upstate when too much political power is vested downstate. History proves it and this November, it could happen again as Democrats make another bid to take control of the State Senate. If the past is a guide, it would be a disaster.

In fact, with the results of a special election on Long Island last week, Democrats already enjoy a numerical edge. The election, held to replace Dean Skelos – the former Senate Republican leader recently convicted of federal felonies related to his conduct in office – gives Democrats a majority. The saving grace for Republicans, and for upstaters, is that several of those Democrats have aligned themselves with Republicans.

But that balance of power could change in November, when all of the Senate’s 63 seats are up for election. For a window on what that could mean, consider what happened in 2009 when Democrats briefly won control of the chamber.

With Senate political clout concentrated downstate – where the Assembly’s power is also amassed – upstate was hardly acknowledged during the budget session. The proof showed up in the Senate pork barrel allotments: Of a total of $85 million, $77 million went to Democrats – fully 90 percent of the total. And of that, a measly $13.7 million went to benefit upstate programs.

It was a money grab and, despite Democrats’ subsequent pleas of contrition, it would be foolish not to expect it to happen again, especially given the level of self-dealing and criminality that infects both chambers of the State Legislature.

Republicans are facing a daunting task, given the facts of a left-leaning state and their own party’s growing affection for the politics of anger. They are trying, sometimes too hard, to split the difference, coming off as Democrat-lite rather than as an honorable and principled conservative voice. Surely, even in this time of spitfire politics, there remains room for such an approach.

Here’s an idea that can help to distinguish Senate Republicans as they fight to retain control over the chamber: More than anything else, right now, New York needs ethics reform. Republican candidates should make that a key point of their campaigns.

Consider: Not only was Skelos recently convicted of serious felonies, but so was his Assembly counterpart, former Speaker Sheldon Silver. Before that, so was former Comptroller Alan Hevesi. And rank-and-file members have fallen like tenpins over the past several years, as their criminal conduct has caught up with them.

Yet state legislators have been loathe to contemplate serious reform. They have resisted all efforts, except for periodic cosmetic changes that were meant to salve the concerns of voters while continuing to enable unethical and criminal conduct.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has promised to lead a fight for ethics reform over the remaining two months of the legislative session. That’s a good start, but New Yorkers also need a champion in the Legislature. Senate Republicans should become that champion, overcoming voters’ doubts about their seriousness by pledging themselves to specific, measurable ethics changes and then campaigning on them.

That could be especially helpful in Western New York, where Sen. Marc Panepinto, D-Buffalo, has come under a cloud of suspicion and has announced that he will not seek a second term. The fight for that seat will be fierce. If ethics reform is not a part of the campaign, then New Yorkers lose no matter who wins.