ALBANY – The state Senate will stay in Republican control – at least for the rest of the 2018 session.
With all political eyes on a key special election contest in Westchester County that could flip Senate control to Democrats, Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder pre-empted the show Tuesday afternoon by declaring he would retain his one-man alliance with Senate Republicans.
The move by Felder, which came in advance of Democrats winning both special election seats Tuesday night, gives the Republican the one extra vote they need to retain power in the Senate.
The decision by Felder punts the real power fight until the November general elections, when all lawmakers, as well as statewide officials, go before voters.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon nearly six hours before polls closed, Felder said his decision was based, at least in part, on avoiding a fight over partisan power in the Senate that could throw the Legislature into turmoil.
“With only 25 days remaining in this year’s legislative session, I believe it is my obligation to prevent an unprecedented and uncertain late session political battle that will only hurt my constituents and New Yorkers. Political gamesmanship must not be allowed to jeopardize the leadership, committee structure and staff of the New York State Senate and push this institution into turmoil. Upheaval and court battles among partisans is not the preferred method of governing," he said.
There were some indications that a bid by Democrats to take over the Senate would land the whole matter in court. Republicans have pointed to Senate rules that require 38 votes to change those rules, which include a specific reference that Republicans control the current, two-year session of the Senate.
“This issues is best resolved outside of the legislative session and I look forward to revisiting it after session," Felder said in wording meant to intentionally tease both sides that he could be changing his mind later this year.
Shelley Mayer, the Democrat in the Westchester County Senate race, won the special election Tuesday, giving Democrats a numerical edge in the Senate, though one vote short – with Felder's decision – to claim actual control. With 87 percent of the vote in as of Wednesday morning, Mayer, a Democratic member of the Assembly and a former top Democratic Senate staffer, received 58 percent of the vote to 42 percent by Republican Julie Killian. The full expenditures won't be known for several weeks, but millions was spent by the two sides -- and their outside allies through Super PACs – over the sprint of the condensed special election campaign.
In a district heavily dominated by Democrats in the Bronx, Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda had an easy victory to fill another vacant Senate seat.
The Senate is due back in session today at noon.
Felder, who represents a socially conservative district, has done well for his district with the Senate Republicans.
Republicans for months have been saying they believed Felder would remain on their side. Pressure on the Brooklyn Democrat intensified earlier this month after warring Senate Democrats ended years of infighting with the reunification of the mainline Democrats with a breakaway, eight-member group called the Independent Democratic Conference.
Senate Democrats privately said they thought Gov. Andrew Cuomo could use his influence – and ability to push things that might benefit the senator’s district – to prod Felder into joining the Democratic conference. It was not to be.
A spokesman for Cuomo and a spokeswoman for Felder did not respond to an email asking if the governor personally got involved in efforts with Felder to get him to join the Democratic conference.
In a written statement, Dani Lever, a Cuomo spokeswoman, said: "The governor's position is clear: the Democrats must unify to take back the majority. This conversation will continue in the morning.''
At Mayer's victory party Tuesday night, Cuomo appeared to ignore the fact that Felder said he is staying with the GOP and denying the Democrats their chance to assume control of the chamber. "Today is just the beginning. Because now we have 32 registered Democrats under the leadership of (Senate Democratic leader) Andrea Stewart-Cousins and we expect and believe 32 registered Democrats are going to come together and form a Democratic majority,'' Cuomo told the gathering.
Felder has been caucusing with Republicans since he was elected in 2012. The Democratic wins in Tuesday's Westchester race and the Bronx give Democrats a numerical advantage over the GOP, which has dominated the Senate for more than 50 years.
But for the Democrats to take over, they need Felder to join their party conference.
Asked if he was rooting for the Democrat or Republican to win in Westchester, Felder said, “I’m not rooting."
Felder and his district have done well under the alliance with the Republicans. The GOP has helped him drive money from the budget to his district, and to get defeated and approved an array of health care, education and other policy matters.
“I think I’ll make up my mind today," Felder said in an interview with The Buffalo News Tuesday morning.
“He is an honorable man,’’ Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican said of Felder before his announcement. He said Felder had consistently told Senate Republicans that there needed to be “a compelling reason” for his constituents in order for him to end the deal he has with Republicans. “I don’t see that compelling reason at this point," Gallivan said.
Walking out of his Senate office early Tuesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, the Republican who cut the deal to keep Felder in the GOP conference, had a telling smile on his face.
Asked if he was confident Felder would remain with GOP conference, Flanagan said: “I am eminently confident that Senator Felder is going to do what’s in the best interests of his district.”
Mike Murphy, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, predicted Tuesday’s special election contests will show a “blue wave” is sweeping in New York. “The voters are sick and tired of Democrats that empower Trump Republicans,’’ Murphy said after Felder’s announcement.