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Senate Democrats distance themselves from Cuomo

ALBANY – For the better part of four years, the relationship between the out-of-power Senate Democrats and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has been a lot like that bounce-back clown punching bag.

Cuomo would punch, the senators would fall down, and then, like the bop bag, bounce back up for more.

No longer, Senate Democrats say. They have seen their future, and it does not rest with the Democratic governor.

Whether the public chill lasts is not known, but Democrats say they will have to think twice before doing any legislative favors for Cuomo.

“It’s clear that there is not a desire on the executive’s part to be inclusive of the opinion of Senate Democrats,” said Sen. Michael N. Gianaris, D-Queens.

Even though they are in the minority, Senate Democrats provided the votes Cuomo needed in his first term to get two signature laws through the Senate: legalizing same-sex marriage and sharply expanding gun control.

Yet they have never felt Cuomo’s love. In 2012, he broke an earlier campaign promise to improve the way in which legislative district boundaries are drawn once a decade, a process that has helped the GOP keep control of the Senate.

“Most observers would agree that our conference has bent over backwards to work with the governor of our own party the last couple of years, but if it’s clear that our voices are going to be shut out of the process, we will find other ways to express our priorities,” Gianaris said.

In recent weeks, with state budget talks underway, Senate Democrats say Cuomo snubbed them by failing to invite Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, of Westchester County, into the closed-door negotiations.

Members of the minority party are not usually a part of those talks. Albany’s long history of three men in a room is now four men in a room, featuring Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx; Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre; and Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, D-Bronx, leader of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference.

Last fall’s elections giving Senate Republicans the 32 votes needed to approve bills without always needing the help of the independent caucus. So mainline Democrats said Stewart-Cousins has just as much right to be in the secret sessions as Klein.

Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., D-Bronx, said Cuomo’s decision to invite Klein, who represents five Democrats, and not Stewart-Cousins, whose conference totals 24 members and who is the only female legislative leader, is a sign of disrespect.

“He’s asked for it,’’ Diaz said of the pushback now by Senate Democrats.

A few weeks ago Stewart-Cousins began complaining about the closed-door treatment, saying entry to the budget club had always been at least based upon the constitutional roles of the governor and legislative leaders, “and not simply the whims of the governor.”

Stewart-Cousins talked about the controversy in a private conversation with Cuomo on Tuesday, a conversation she declined to discuss.

“He’s certainly aware of how our conference feels,” she said of the way budget talks are going.

Ever the diplomat, Stewart-Cousins sought to downplay the dispute between Cuomo and Senate Democrats.

“We have been supportive of the governor’s issues for the most part. … My concern is that we raise the issues in ways that people are, frankly, forced to hear because we have a lot to contribute. I don’t think anyone sent us up here not to be heard and to be dismissed,” she said in an interview.

The Cuomo administration declined to comment Tuesday.

Criticism by Panepinto

The Senate Democrats' anger is being felt by newcomers as well as veterans.

Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, D-Buffalo, said he has been told by colleagues that former Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, sought more input from Senate Democrats than Cuomo has the last four years.

“I don’t pretend to be a psychologist and understand where the governor is coming from,” Panepinto said. “The governor was never a legislator. He was attorney general and then governor. He was an insider for his father for a lot of years. He … doesn’t like consensus-building. He doesn’t believe in the legislative process. He wants to dictate and bargain from a position of strength, and I think that is unfair.”

Tough words for a freshman Democrat directed at the head of his party. And Panepinto did not stop there.

In an interview last week, the senator lashed out at Cuomo’s education proposals, such as strengthening teacher evaluations and seeking to link them to increases in state aid. Panepinto said the governor’s “personal animosity” at New York State United Teachers, which did not support his re-election bid, is partly driving Cuomo’s education policies.

Panepinto did not have Cuomo’s support in his Senate race last fall, in which former Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, an ally of Cuomo, was ousted from office. NYSUT gave substantial help to Panepinto in his fall primary and the general election.

The governor would not argue he has had a good run with Republicans in control of the Senate. He has returned the favor, giving in on the redistricting fight in 2012 and not breaking a sweat to help Democrats take over the Senate.

With a few exceptions, Senate Democrats have mostly kept their complaints about the governor to themselves.

What’s going on now? Part of it could be “second term-itis” of a governor in his fifth year in office. His past decisions and governing style might be moving the seething lawmakers into the open. Part of it could be Senate Democrats realizing their get-along ways with Cuomo have not worked. Part of it is the personalities involved. And part is recognition by Senate Democrats that most of their election losses last fall were in areas where Cuomo also lost.

Calling for respect

Cuomo is bringing out surrogates to push back against Senate Democrats.

Last week, legislation was introduced by Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, seeking to end the Cuomo administration’s policy in which emails of state workers are deleted after 90 days.

Jumping to Cuomo’s defense was former Gov. David A. Paterson, Cuomo’s handpicked state Democratic chairman and a former Senate Democratic leader. He referred to Senate Democrats as “press release reformers."

On Monday, Cuomo’s counsel, Alphonso David, penned a letter that challenged the Senate Democrats, if they are so gung-ho on ethics law changes, to take a first step in the Senate and voluntarily make their records subject to the state’s freedom of information laws.

The spokesman for the Senate Democrats had a pointed response: “The last people we will be taking transparency advice from is an administration that has racked up one of the least transparent records in history."

Stewart-Cousins, as minority leader, has been supported in her bid to join the budget leaders meeting by current and former colleagues and EMILY’s List, the national PAC that works to elect Democratic women.

Asked about the controversy, Marc Brumer, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a political ally of Stewart-Cousins, said in an email statement: “As Sen. Gillibrand has said repeatedly, whether talking about boardrooms, the halls of Congress, or even local school boards, when women’s voices are at the table, the outcomes are better.”

Diaz, the Bronx Democrat, said Tuesday his Senate Democratic colleagues – “all of them” – have stood by Cuomo the past four years.

“Now, it seems like they are fed up. It seems like they now have decided it’s time for us to go the other way or send a message to the governor: respect us,’’ Diaz said. “Me, I’m glad it’s happening.’’

Diaz said Cuomo’s decision to have Klein, who represents five Democrats, and not Stewart-Cousins, whose conference totals 24 members and is the only female legislative leader, is simply a sign of disrespect.