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Peoples-Stokes a prime mover in Regents shift

ALBANY – The State Legislature approved Catherine Fisher Collins, of Buffalo, as the region’s newest member of the Board of Regents on Tuesday afternoon.

But the campaign, an especially divisive one, was effectively over at 6:10 p.m. Friday. That’s when Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, got a call while his wife was driving their car to a wake for her uncle. On the other end was a staff member who had just been notified by a member of the Assembly staff in Albany that Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, had chosen Collins for the Regents post and that longtime Regent Robert M. Bennett, of the Town of Tonawanda, was out.

For Schimminger, a senior member of the Assembly first elected in 1976, it was a stinging decision after he went to the mat for Bennett.

“I said, ‘Was it a prediction or a statement of fact?’ It was a statement of fact,” Schimminger said of the message from Heastie’s office.

If Schimminger lost, Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, was the clear winner: Collins, her candidate, was elected to the Board of Regents on Tuesday by a comfortable margin, and Albany insiders got the message that Peoples-Stokes very much has the ear of Heastie.

Peoples-Stokes was not shying away from that perception.

“I think that’s true. There is no question that Carl and I have a good relationship,” she said of the speaker, who has come to Buffalo a number of times to meet with members of Grassroots, her political group. “So if this means that my opinion has risen to the top in our delegation, then I think that bodes well for Buffalo.”

With input from a number of politicians and the state’s teachers union, Heastie’s choice of Collins essentially came down to what one lawmaker called an umpire’s call after his three Democratic colleagues from Western New York each embraced a different candidate for the job.

“This is more of an internal discussion,” Heastie said in an interview when asked how he came to support Collins. “We spoke to the members, and I guess the more doable solution for all of us was to go forward with Miss Collins.” He did not elaborate.

There might be 18 lawmakers who make up the 8th Judicial District, an eight-county area in the region represented by the newest regent. But Heastie decided after listening to just three of them: Schimminger, Peoples-Stokes and Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, D-Buffalo. They are the only local members of the Assembly’s Democratic Conference, a party group that runs the chamber. The rest are Assembly Republicans, Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats or Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo, the lone Assembly Democrat who is not a member of the Democratic conference . None of them played a decisive role in the selection of Collins.

“Only three members had opportunities to weigh in for the recommendation of their regent,” Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, R-Clarence, said on the floor of the Assembly on Tuesday. “Here we are in Western New York, (and) a majority of Western New York was not consulted in that decision. I think it really goes against the concept of democracy.”

Tuesday galvanized the increasing influence within the Democratic Conference of Peoples-Stokes, who joined the Assembly in 2003, which was 26 years after Schimminger came to Albany.

“Crystal drove this thing in the Assembly. She demonstrated that she has the juice there. Crystal flexed her muscle in this thing,” said one lawmaker who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to alienate his colleagues.

For Heastie, a month into the job as Assembly speaker, the Board of Regents election was no easy process. He had a choice: He could go with the view of Schimminger, the Assembly leader from Western New York and take Bennett. Or go with Collins, Peoples-Stokes’ candidate. Or Ryan, who backed former Buffalo School Board member John B. Licata. Certainly, internal Assembly politics played a role. In the recent election for speaker, Schimminger and Ryan did not jump out early for Heastie. Peoples-Stokes also kept her support in that contest publicly quiet, but she said after Heastie emerged as the new Assembly leader that she had quietly supported him from the start in talks with other Democrats.

Heastie’s Regents decision also came down to fulfilling some of his own campaign promises. In the race for speaker, he vowed to give more deference to newer or junior members of the Democratic Conference, a group that can wait years to gain enough seniority to get their views considered. By going with Peoples-Stokes over Schimminger, he could demonstrate to colleagues that this promise was real.

Heastie also knows Peoples-Stokes the best of the three Buffalo-area Democrats; they both have had leadership roles in the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus. In Collins, there was also an opportunity to get an additional African-American voice on the Board of Regents.

“I know a lot of people think I focused on her ethnicity. Not true. … It’s all about credentials,” Peoples-Stokes said.

Given the Democrats’ growing impatience with the Board of Regents, Bennett’s chances evaporated.

The board saw one of its own ousted last year during a Regents election. This year, the wrath of Assembly Democrats at the Regents spread over the panel’s handling of everything from the Common Core Learning Standards, teacher evaluations and a general feeling by lawmakers of indifference by the Regents to the wishes of legislators, especially Assembly Democrats. Also gone from power is the Regents’ longtime protector, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, who has been indicted on federal corruption charges.

“It’s a very strong message that the people of New York are dissatisfied with the Regents, the state Education Department and their top-down approach to education,” Ryan said Tuesday. He recalled recent Regents elections when lawmakers were sent a simple message: Do not question the decisions. “What do you mean?” he said was the reaction by many lawmakers, especially more junior ones.

Heastie’s decision over the weekend, which forced Bennett on Sunday to withdraw from the campaign, also avoided the possibility of a rare floor fight for the opening that could have given Republicans a voice in the decision if Democrats had split their votes.

Schimminger did not hide his disappointment over Bennett’s departure. He said Bennett had enough votes from local lawmakers – if GOP legislators were counted. “I think (Bennett) was treated shabbily, and Art Eve would be very disappointed,” Schimminger said in an interview, referring to the former Assembly deputy speaker from Buffalo who in 1995 first suggested to him that Bennett join the Regents.

Schimminger said that about three weeks ago Heastie asked him whether he, Peoples-Stokes and Ryan could agree on a single candidate. “I jokingly said, ‘You sound like Sheldon Silver, but it ain’t going to happen.’ Crystal and Sean remained solid in their positions,” Schimminger said he told Heastie.

“I told him of my strong support for Bob and told him it would be a travesty not to appoint him and a double travesty to appoint an alum of the Buffalo Board of Education,” Schimminger said of Collins.

Schimminger said he waited until after the funeral Saturday to inform Bennett of Heastie’s decision. He said he told him that it would be “virtually impossible” to win a floor fight. On Sunday, Bennett, 74, dropped out.

“I do know that the New York State United Teachers (union) in no uncertain terms were opposed to Bob Bennett. Their position was ‘not Bob Bennett,’ and I think that factored in very heavily to the thinking of the speaker and his people,” Schimminger said.

Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, and early Collins backer, on Monday called the campaign “democracy in action.” On Tuesday, during the floor debate, Kennedy thanked Bennett for his service but said change on the Regents panel was needed.

Collins, 75, won with 124 votes. Republicans nominated Lockport teacher David L. Lowrey; one Republican, Assemblyman Andrew W. Goodell of Chautauqua County, asked colleagues Tuesday why they would consider someone for the Regents whose résumé includes service on the board for the academically challenged Buffalo school system. Licata was not nominated.

This is not the first time a Regents’ selection has divided the Western New York delegation. In 1995, Assembly Democrats had different names for an opening, with Eve, and then-Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, successfully pushing Bennett. Six years ago, there was no consensus on a replacement for retiring Regent Arnold B. Gardner, of Buffalo, and Silver tapped the Rochester area’s Wade S. Norwood for the opening, a post he still holds.

On Tuesday afternoon, after the vote, Peoples-Stokes said she doesn’t really know how Heastie made his choice: “All I can say is I’m grateful.”