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Upstate voiceless? Senate shift has flip side If Democrats gain control, all power to be in N.Y. City

If the Democrats take control of the State Senate next month, the 8 million residents who live north of the New York City suburbs might have a legitimate question: Who will be upstate's voice in Albany?

On the surface, the battle under way for control of the Senate is whether Democrats or Republicans run the 62-member chamber.

But, more precisely, a Democratic victory would shift the last vestige of state government's power center decisively to New York City.

Taking over as Senate majority leader would be Sen. Malcolm A. Smith. He lives in Queens, and he would join the other current state government power-holders: Gov. David A. Paterson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. They both live in Manhattan.

It would be only the fourth time -- 1935, 1913 and 1893 were the others -- since the mid-1800s when all of the legislative and executive branch leaders resided in New York City.

If their positions on key issues hold true, the effects of a Senate Democratic takeover could be dramatic -- affecting future discussions over state budgets, distribution of school aid, property taxes, business regulations and a series of social policy considerations, from expansion of abortion rights to criminal-justice matters.
In addition, a Democratic takeover of the Senate would set the stage for that leadership to reshape the political landscape for decades, since redistricting -- the practice of drawing districts that favor re-election of incumbents -- will occur after the 2010 election.

In that case, "Albany, as we know it, ceases to exist," one lobbyist said.

Presently in the 62-member Senate, 25 districts are located from Orange County heading northward. All but four -- two in the Buffalo area -- are represented by Republicans.

By contrast, there are 26 Senate districts within New York City, and 21 are now held by Democrats, with one vacancy in a Democratic district. The rest of the districts are on Long Island and in northern suburbs. A shift to Democratic control in the Senate, coupled with the concentration of authority in the Assembly among New York City Democrats, would firmly consolidate the legislative power base within the city's five boroughs.

The partisan edge is as close as ever: 31 Republicans to 29 Democrats, with one vacancy in a GOP-leaning district and one in the New York City Democratic district. A half-dozen Senate districts are in play next month, and Western New York will have considerable say in the outcome. Three local races are involved: GOP Sen. Dale M. Volker and his Democratic opponent, Kathy Konst; Republican Michael H. Ranzenhofer against Democrat Joe Mesi for the seat held by retiring GOP Sen. Mary Lou Rath; and Democrat Sen. William T. Stachowski's race against Republican Dennis A. Delano.

Republicans from upstate and Long Island are warning voters that changing the present balance of power Jan. 1 would be a doomsday scenario.

"In my humble opinion, Buffalo wouldn't stand a chance," Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said of the effect of the Senate leadership flipping.

Precisely what Senate Democrats may have in mind if they take over is not entirely certain.

The Buffalo News requested to interview Smith -- who would oust Skelos as majority leader if Democrats win -- about the impact a party change would have on the upstate region, along with his policy ideas and priorities. The request was turned down.

Other Democrats insist that the problems of upstate are not lost on downstate political leaders.

"I think we all recognize the upstate economy is lagging," Silver said.

June O'Neill, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party and a resident of St. Lawrence County, said it is a myth that Senate Republicans have been the "saviors" of upstate.

"Take a look at upstate; we're not in such great shape," she said of seven decades of GOP dominance in the Senate. "It's not like they haven't had their chance."

Special interests have their own spins on the potential outcomes, and the opinions vary depending on whether they think of themselves as possible winners or losers in a Democratic-run Senate.

>Collins is skeptical

Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said that it is natural for upstate to be concerned if every branch of government is led by a downstate Democrat. (Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo is from Manhattan, while Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli is from nearby Nassau County. Both are Democrats.)

Many of the forces driving up costs for businesses and local governments -- whether union-backed work rules or unfunded mandates -- have come chiefly at the hands of downstate Democrats, Rudnick believes.

"If that drift is then exaggerated, obviously you fear that those conditions get worse, not better," he said, worrying also about the loss of committee chairmanships now held by upstate senators.

Rudnick said he does not believe that downstate lawmakers intentionally seek to undermine upstate. But they often fail to recognize the stark differences in the business climate between the regions, he said, noting that the effects of a government mandate that New York City can accommodate might crush an upstate community.

"It's not that if you are GOP, you are good and Democrats are bad. It's about where the primary cues are coming from," he added.

Erie County Executive Chris Collins, a Republican, was less diplomatic.

"I don't think they care about us. I'm not sure they want us to die off, but they frankly don't care about us and are willing to take actions that play to their constituents and unions and special interests," Collins said.

Collins said the Senate GOP has a mixed record in getting upstate-supported measures approved. But it has played a key role, he said, in blocking plans that would harm the region, such as a proposal by Paterson this summer to shift costs onto county budgets.

"The 'stopping power' is the most important to me," Collins said.

Several high-profile Democrats declined interview requests, including Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Paterson, who are both former state senators. "Whichever one of them wins, I'm going to make sure they do the right thing for upstate" was all Paterson would say in an e-mail.

Republican Skelos predicts profound changes if the Democrats take over. He said an array of criminal-justice policies -- such as expansion of the state's DNA database and elimination of the statute of limitations on rape -- would not have been possible without a GOP-led Senate. But he said that it is the geographical power shift that should worry upstate.

"They're going to fight for New York City," he said of Democrats. "They're not going to have a concern about the western part of the state."

>Democrats seek unity

What would the Senate Democrats do if they were in charge?

For starters, the near term would be shaped by the growing, multibillion-dollar deficits expected this year and in 2009. Republicans say the Senate, under Democratic control, would join with the Assembly efforts to shift school aid, providing less for suburban districts and more for lower-income districts. That could end up benefiting places such as Buffalo at the expense of some suburban districts.

On their Web site, Senate Democrats talk of the state taking over all Medicaid costs to save counties billions -- an unlikely prospect for now, given the fiscal climate.

They say they want to cut health insurance costs, repeal sales taxes on personal items such as dental floss, let localities raise real estate taxes to protect more open spaces and have companies pay for workers' family leave.

"On reproductive health, it would be the difference between John McCain and Barack Obama. The difference between the GOP-led Senate and a Democratic-led Senate is just that stark," said Kelli Conlin, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League of New York, which is spending $900,000 to help the Democrats take over the Senate.

Conlin said she believes that a Democratic-led Senate would act quickly to make access to abortion a fundamental right in the state -- the first major change on the issue since the 1970s. The effort, blocked by the GOP-led Senate, would preserve abortion rights in the event Roe v. Wade is ever reversed on the national level and make it difficult to change the law, such as by requiring parental notification. She believes that the Senate, under Democrats, would expand sex education for teenagers, another effort stalled in the GOP-led Senate.

Advocates of a Democratic majority dismiss GOP talk that a Senate flip would disrupt the partisan balance that has existed in the two houses for generations.

"What it really creates is impasse," Conlin said of the current situation in which one party controls each house.

If they win, the Democrats would not find governing easy, especially given the fiscal decisions to be made in the coming year. And their agenda may have internal problems.

Can more conservative upstate Democrats, for example, go along with expansion of abortion rights? And could such issues lead to geographic blocs in the Democratic conference that keeps the chamber from going too far left?

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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