Except for a three-day period in late 1991, when Binghamton Democrat James R. Tallon Jr. found himself thrust into the job, the position of speaker of the Assembly has been a decidedly downstate source of power.
Not since the late 1950s and the days of Oswald D. Heck of Schenectady, the longest-serving speaker ever, has an upstater ruled the Assembly, and Heck was a Republican.
Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle, a suburban Rochester Democrat, is about to alter that 50-year trend, but a huge question remains unanswered.
Will Morelle be another Tallon, a caretaker speaker, or another Heck, a speaker for years?
“There’s an old saying around here: ‘Upstate only succeeds when downstate is divided,’ ” said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, a 37-year veteran of the Assembly.
Morelle, 57, who will be interim speaker until a new one is chosen, is expected to seek the speakership in an expected Feb. 10 election that could include several downstate rivals.
If the field narrows to a single New York City-area Democrat, the conventional wisdom is that Morelle’s chances dim considerably. The Assembly’s Democratic Conference is made up of 105 members, and 62 of them are from downstate.
“He knows how to take the temperature of the caucus,” former Assemblyman Paul A. Tokasz, a Democrat from Cheektowaga, said of Morelle. “He knows the membership. He knows their needs and he knows their policy priorities.”
Tokasz, like Morelle, served as majority leader under Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Manhattan Democrat who is being removed from the post in the wake of federal corruption charges against him.
As the Assembly’s No. 2 leader and one of Silver’s closest advisers, Morelle is the natural choice to succeed him in the interim. Assembly rules also require the majority leader’s appointment unless a new speaker has been elected.
The question facing Morelle is whether the former Monroe County legislator can convince downstate Democrats to back him once the Democratic Conference meets next month to select a permanent successor.
“Joe’s a very good guy. Joe’s a very good listener. And Joe has relationships with members all across the state,” said Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo. Ryan isn’t supporting Morelle at this point ,but he thinks his colleague, despite his upstate heritage, is well suited to emerge as a credible successor to Silver.
Ryan is also part of coalition of reform-minded Democrats – he says there are 31 of them, all elected in the last five years – who have pledged to back a candidate for speaker who promises to bring change to the Assembly.
The goal, he said, is to make the Assembly more democratic and less speaker-centric, and that Morelle has positioned himself as that type of leader.
“He’s become the guy members go to when they’re shut out,” Ryan said. “He’s set himself up as the voice of independence.”
There’s no shortage of Morelle competitors and the list includes at least five downstaters. The front-runners are Assemblymen Carl E. Heastie of the Bronx and Keith L.T. Wright of Harlem. “It’s certainly conceivable that he could be elected,” Schimminger said of Morelle. “And it would be a wonderful thing to have an upstate speaker.”
Morelle has his share of pitfalls and obstacles, of course. First and foremost are his lifelong roots in Irondequoit, a bedroom community outside Rochester, far from the center of power in New York City.
Also, Morelle is viewed as a Silver confidante, a relationship that could prove problematic for Democratic lawmakers, especially newer ones eager to distance themselves from Silver and the allegations of corruption.
In recent days, Morelle has remained, at least physically, at Silver’s side. They have been seen walking through the Capitol together, and Morelle was one of the assemblymen who informed Silver of the internal revolt against him.
On the plus side, Morelle is also close to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and can trace his support all the way back to Cuomo’s failed 2002 gubernatorial primary challenge to H. Carl McCall. First elected in 1990, he also has the experience to serve as one of the state’s “three men in a room” who negotiate the state budget.
“He’s got tremendous leadership skills,” said Assembly Minority Leader Brian M. Kolb, R-Canandaigua.
Kolb and Morelle represent districts from the same region and have had what Kolb describes as a positive, bipartisan working relationship. He also thinks his Democratic colleague, despite the absence of more upstate Democrats, is “even money” to win election as speaker. “The question is whether he or she is able to manage their conference and manage the entire Assembly,” Kolb said of the potential candidates for speaker.
He thinks Morelle, who has been majority leader since 2013, is capable of emerging as the voice of competence and experience, two things the Democrats need as they move forward with the current legislative session. Chief among the tasks facing the Assembly is a new state budget, always a source of great debate among lawmakers.
Tokasz, who campaigned for Morelle when he first ran for the Assembly and shares his love of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, thinks Morelle’s ascension to interim speaker is indicative of the Democrats’ confidence in him at this time of crisis.
“You can’t just put things on hold,” he said of the budget and other issues facing the Assembly and Senate. “I think there was a collective understanding among Assembly Democrats that they have to move forward.”
The first step is expected to come Monday when the Assembly adopts a rule changing the time period when a speaker will serve. Under the new rule, the speaker would serve at the pleasure of the Assembly, not a two-year term as it is now.
The new rule also would allow the majority leader, in this case Morelle, to serve on a temporary basis for 90 days if there’s a vacancy in the speakership.