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Far reaching consequences for WNY loom as Democrats eye State Senate takeover

For all the political advantages New York Democrats have enjoyed in recent years, they never succeeded for any length of time in ruling the upper house of the State Legislature.

Even in overwhelmingly Democratic New York, the last bastion of Republican power in Albany remains the Senate.

But the GOP’s long control may be facing extinction. While political stars, moons and planets must still align in the coming weeks and months for Democrats to assume control, many observers view the switch as “inevitable.”

And with such a significant transfer of power comes change, which many say will occur at the expense of Western New York and all of upstate.

“If anybody thinks that Buffalo would have gotten what it did over the years without what this Western New York delegation brought back they’re crazy,” said retired State Sen. Dale M. Volker, a Depew Republican and a key local legislator for more than three decades. “This has an impact on Western New York.”

But a Democrat potentially looming as one of upstate’s most important senators views it far differently. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo insists a totally Democratic state government means everyone in New York will now be operating from the same playbook.

“Don’t let anybody fool you, the Republican conference has been led by Republicans taking their orders from the Trump elite,” he said, referring to President Trump’s brand of politics. “Now to have more clout in a budget process that impacts the second largest city in the State of New York will be a very positive development for us.”

Changes stemming from a potential Democratic takeover of the Senate include:

• The New York City area’s near total control of state government. All statewide elected officials already hail from downstate (except for Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul of Buffalo), while New York City Democrats could now wield gavels in the Assembly and Senate.

• Western New York’s majority representation in the Senate will drastically shrink from five to one. Kennedy would become the only senator west of Syracuse sitting with the all-important majority.

• Upstate clout in the Senate majority will diminish from overwhelming to barely counting. Only Kennedy and Sens. David J. Valesky of Syracuse and Neil D. Breslin of Albany will now represent the vast stretch above the New York City suburbs in the upper house majority.

• Kennedy could become the region’s new “go to guy.” One majority senator from Western New York could now replace five (Republicans Catherine M. Young of Olean, Robert G. Ortt of North Tonawanda, Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Williamsville, Patrick M. Gallivan of Elma and Christopher L. Jacobs of Buffalo).

• The recognition of New York’s metamorphosis into a deep blue state, especially since even once solidly Republican upstate now registers Democrat as a region.

• Reapportionment stemming from the 2020 census could be totally controlled by Democrats, ensuring their majority in Albany far into the future.

An important first step in the process occurred this week when the Independent Democratic Conference that formed a coalition majority with Senate Republicans dissolved and rejoined regular Democrats. The renegade group of eight Democrats led by Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx had caucused with the GOP for the past seven years, artificially preserving a fading majority.

A slew of political machinations will now play key roles in determining Albany’s future course, including the allegiance of a single rogue Democrat from Brooklyn (Sen. Simcha Felder), special elections to fill Senate vacancies on April 24, and the November general election.

Long time Albany hands like Volker say any change will upset a balance of power that though often faulty, has served the state over the decades. Current Republican senators like Ranzenhofer see “devastating” effects for upstate.

He pointed to less money for upstate school districts and transportation during the brief Democratic takeover of the Senate following the 2009 “coup,” adding a repeat will result in “unacceptable” policies for western and upstate New York.

“It will be controlled by all Democrats in the Assembly, the Senate and the governor who do not understand or appreciate upstate New York,” Ranzenhofer said. “Any time you have one-party rule it’s not good for people who depend on government to be either helpful or to just stay out of the way.”

Ranzenhofer said he recognizes the increasing tendency of New Yorkers to register and vote Democratic, but cites the problem as one more of geography than political philosophy.

“If you have New York City control, they will focus only on New York City and their agenda,” he said.

Democrats like Kennedy, however, are already anticipating a new era. He says new life has been breathed into initiatives like early voting, same day voter registration, ethics legislation and campaign finance reform traditionally blocked by the Republican Senate.

The Child Victims Act that would allow victims of sexual abuse to seek justice as adults, Kennedy said, may now face more favorable prospects of passage.

“It’s an example of legislation supported in a bipartisan fashion stymied by the Republicans who would not allow it to come to the floor for a vote,” Kennedy said. “I, unfortunately, have had all kinds of legislation put to the wayside because the Republicans were in control. They stymied these things because it wasn’t in the Republicans’ best interest.”

He predicts middle class and blue collar issues will receive more attention by Democrats ruling all of Albany. And he dismisses any notion that upstate will be ignored under one-party rule.

The changeover could also affect social issues such as the Women’s Equality Agenda advanced in recent years by Cuomo and Senate Democrats. The agenda’s “10th point,” which “codifies” New York law according to the federal Roe vs. Wade decision and expands abortion rights, has always fallen short in the GOP Senate.

Representatives of Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice advocates did not return phone calls on Friday, but most observers now see revived chances for the measure.

But others fear the effects of one-party rule and the absence of conservative Republicans who protected the interest of business.

Greg Biryla, executive director of the Unshackle Upstate business advocacy group, said even the Democrat’s short-lived control of the Senate in 2009 resulted in a “slew of new taxes and serious fiscal problems.” He also said the Senate has always acted as a check on the liberal Assembly controlled by downstate Democrats.

“Assembly policies have been so downstate driven that they have been very harmful to the upstate economy,” he said. “If the Senate follows suit, that will be very problematic.”

Brownfield and historic tax credits, he said, are prime examples of policies benefiting upstate communities that could be left behind under Democratic control. The mere fact that new minimum wages remain lower upstate stem from GOP influence in the Senate, he said.

“Obviously, should the Senate turn over,” Biryla said, “there is ample cause for concern.”

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