A veteran Democratic member of the Assembly says he is thinking about running for the Southern Tier seat that had been held by State Sen. Patricia K. McGee, a popular Republican who died Saturday.
Assemblyman William L. Parment of Chautauqua County said that in deference to McGee, whom he called a friend, he is not actively looking into a campaign at this point. "But I don't rule it out," said Parment, a maverick lawmaker who has clashed with Democratic leaders over the years on issues ranging from soaring state debt levels to how the Assembly is operated.
On the Republican side, Assemblywoman Catharine Young is the apparent front-runner to succeed McGee on the GOP line in a special election that Gov. George E. Pataki is expected to call sometime in the coming weeks.
"Now is not the time for politics. Now is the time to honor and remember Pat and everything she accomplished," said Young, 43, an Olean resident first elected to the Assembly in 1998.
For Parment, a Democrat who runs well in Republican towns, a switch to the Senate would take him out of the political majority that he now enjoys in the Assembly -- something that might be considered political suicide in a State Capitol where minority party lawmakers have almost no influence.
But Democrats in the Senate last fall picked up three seats from Republicans and lost a fourth seat by a razor-thin margin.
Democrats have issued threats that they will be making a major effort to take control of the State Senate in 2006. Two major statewide races -- for governor and for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton -- could pull the kind of voters and intensity that could help in that regard.
The Republicans control the Senate, 34-27, with the one vacancy because of McGee's death.
A race for McGee's seat would be a political free ride for both Parment and Young, since neither would lose the Assembly seat if defeated in the special election for the Senate vacancy.
"Obviously, if I were to make that decision (to run), it would be in contemplation of the Senate becoming Democratic," Parment said.
The 62-year-old Democrat from North Harmony, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1982, said that serving in a minority party role "might be attractive" because he would be less constrained to speak out against problems he sees in Albany. Parment already has a reputation as one of the more outspoken Democrats on issues that rankle his own Democratic leadership.
"But if the Senate were to flip in '06, it would be very beneficial to the Southern Tier to have a senator in the majority. That's just the way it works," Parment said. Rank-and-file majority party members in the 62-member Senate have far more access to pork-barrel spending from the state budget and generally can have more influence than rank-and-file members in the larger, 150-member Assembly.
Parment said Senate Democrats had been talking to him over the last several months about the prospects of challenging McGee, who died at age 70 after several months of battling pneumonia and related conditions. McGee had represented the 57th Senate District since 1987.
But Parment, who said the Democrats have been holding similar talks with other potential candidates from across the state about taking on GOP Senate incumbents, said he would have never taken on McGee.
"I told them I didn't think Pat McGee was vulnerable," Parment said, noting that McGee, from Cattaraugus County, had the highest approval rating of any politician representing Chautauqua County.
The 57th District is home to 73,000 registered Republicans and 60,000 Democrats. McGee won last fall by a vote count of 80,000 to 29,000 over a little-known opponent. The mostly rural district includes all or parts of Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Livingston counties.