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State Senate's top Republican weighs in on Democratic unity deal

ALBANY – “Hard core politics” and “extraordinary pressure” from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo drove the timing of last week’s decision for warring Senate Democrats to unite, a move prodded by pressure the governor is feeling from his challenge by activist Cynthia Nixon, according to the Senate’s top Republican.

“Did I think it was going to last longer? Sure. Was I hoping it was going to last longer? Sure," Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, said of the now-defunct alliance Senate Republicans enjoyed until last week with a breakaway group of eight Democrats.

“There’s no question in my mind," Flanagan said of Democratic unity deal coming about last week from pressure by Nixon’s challenge to Cuomo and primary bids facing members of the former Independent Democratic Conference headed by Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat.

Flanagan, in his first interview since the Democratic unity arrangement was unveiled last week, said Cuomo and the IDC senators are “under intense pressure” from what he called middle- and far-left activists that “make Bernie Sanders look like a fiscal disciplinarian.’’

The unity arrangement came together days after Flanagan wrapped up private talks with Cuomo and Klein over a new $168.3 billion state budget.

“I wasn’t shocked … Surprised? Yeah," Flanagan said of the timing of the announcement. Senate Democrats and Cuomo last year claimed a tentative deal was on the books to bring feuding Democrats back together, but that the terms would not become clear until after special elections to fill two vacant Senate seats. The special election contests are set for April 24.

Flanagan said Cuomo benefited mightily from having the GOP in control of the Senate during the time since the governor took office in 2011.

Asked what issues Cuomo touts that would not have occurred if the Senate had not been in GOP hands, Flanagan said: “Oh my goodness. How much time do you have?’’

The Senate leader said there is “no question” that the property tax cap proposed early on by Cuomo “would not have happened” if the Legislature had been controlled in both houses by Democrats. He said the same of the 2 percent, self-imposed cap on annual growth in state spending since Cuomo has been in office.

In December, shortly after a “framework” arrangement was announced to reunite battling Senate Democrats, Flanagan said in an interview that he was confident the Senate GOP would remain in “a good position."

Flanagan said at the time that his relations with Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who founded the IDC group, were strong; Klein in December even gave Flanagan an advance copy of what he was going to say about the Democratic alliance deal first floated last year.

“I expect it to last a lot longer than through the end of session," Flanagan said in December of the Senate GOP and IDC pact that kept Republicans in control of the Senate.

In fact, that pact ended April 4, when Klein said he was shutting down the IDC and he and his fellow seven breakaway IDC members were teaming back up with mainline Democrats. The session doesn’t end until late June.

In between – on April 24 – a special election to fill two current vacancies will be held. Only one of those seats – located in a Westchester County district – is in play. If the Democrats win both contests, they will have a numerical edge – 32 to 31 seats – in the 63-member chamber. But that does not take into account Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat by name who for several years has conferenced with the Republicans. Felder has been coy about his intentions if the Democrats win both special elections, though his district and desires benefited from the recently concluded state budget talks.

Flanagan heaped praise on Felder, calling him a “very valued member of our conference.’’

Asked if he has spoken to Felder since the Democratic unity event and if he has a commitment from the Brooklyn senator to remain with the Senate GOP through the end of the year, Flanagan said no to both questions.

“Senator Felder has made it crystal clear to everyone that he’s going to do what’s in the best interest of his constituents. Hopefully, that’s continuing to align with us, but I would be speaking out of turn if I said anything like that," he said. He is a welcome addition and we have completely enjoyed working with him … Hopefully, he will stay."

Asked Thursday if he felt betrayed by Klein, Flanagan said, “No. There’s no sense in talking about things in that regard. Did I work well with Jeff? Of course … We knew how to get things done.’’

But Flanagan made clear things will be different come Monday when the Legislature returns from a two-week vacation. For starters, Klein has been kicked out of his prime offices – a sprawling fourth-floor suite at the Capitol and a ninth-floor office in the Legislative Office Building across the street, as well as a Senate office in Manhattan. Where Klein and his staff works from going forward is up to Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat who has given Klein the title of deputy minority leader under the unity pact.

“We have made office changes,’’ Flanagan said, noting that he is only following decades of practice in Albany where the majority parties in the Legislature have say over such matters.

Klein’s IDC group – which, though disbanded has kept alive its fundraising arm – was set to hold a fundraiser Thursday night in Manhattan. Asked if he was attending, Flanagan said, “Thank you for asking, but no, I will not be attending.”

Flanagan said the split-up, orchestrated by Cuomo, is curious because of the governor’s mantra that partisan politics in Washington has led to dysfunction in the U.S. Capitol. “We had a national model,’’ Flanagan said of bipartisan dealmaking over the years in Albany. “People can look to the state of New York and say, ‘Wow, they can get along and do the people’s business.' ’’

Senate Republicans, Flanagan said, have also made a presence “to make sure the governor doesn’t get his way” on all things he proposes. He cited the pushback on a major tax hike plan Cuomo proposed in January that was mostly undone in the final budget.

Without being specific, Flanagan said he expects to hold current seats held by the Senate in the November elections, and will be “going aggressively” after seats now held by Democrats in some areas of the state.

“Everyone right now has a laser-light focus on the 37th Senate district,’’ he said of the upcoming special election in Westchester County. “Certainly, it’s going to cost us a lot of money. People view this as a harbinger of what may come in the state of New York,’’ he said, not offering what the Senate GOP might spend on the contest.

“I disagree with the politics. I disagree with the philosophy," Flanagan said of the Democratic unity deal.

But, he added, “There’s no point in being mad."

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