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Potential state Senate power shift offers big implications for upstate

ALBANY – Since state lawmakers went home for the year in June, Sen. Chris Jacobs has been blanketing his Buffalo area district with state funds.

Money for parkland, for a municipal parking lot, for libraries, for domestic violence shelters, for an African-American veterans monument, for a new health care facility at a college and for a new town water tower.

In all since the summer began, the Buffalo Republican has taken credit in whole or in part for steering $8.35 million in various state spending initiatives – or about $81,000 per day on average. It’s all been thanks to his membership in an exclusive Albany club known as the majority of the state Senate.

Jacobs, however, might not want to get too comfortable with the accolades from recipients of the money. Nor should the parts of Buffalo and suburbs to the north and south of the city get too used to the funding flow.

Even if he wins, as expected, over Democratic opponent Carima El-Behairy, Jacobs and his fellow Senate Republican are facing the prospect of losing their majority status.

And in Albany, if the GOP takes over the Senate and polls are right about how Democrats running for statewide office will fare, it would be a cataclysmic event for the Republicans: They would be cut out of decision-making in the all the branches of government that on a daily basis touch the lives of millions.

Democrats are gunning like never before to take over the 63-member Senate. They already are in control of the Assembly, where Republicans in the minority are treated like props. And a Republican hasn’t won a statewide office since 2002. Political power in New York on Nov. 6 is poised to be coalesced into the hands of Democrats from downstate in a way that could hold for decades given the looming prospect of redistricting.

Where might upstate fit in?

A basic question is then raised: How will thousands of square miles in upstate fare under this new, potential power structure?

First, know the first rule of the state Capitol: Majority party rules and minority party lawmakers are left with table scraps when it comes to funding and policy-making matters. As a result, millions of upstate residents could see themselves lose the sole remaining seat at the table in closed door Capitol talks each year that decide everything from school funding levels to who gets tax breaks and who gets tax hikes.

Not surprisingly, Republicans paint a doomsday scenario.

“I think it’s a problem of epic proportions," said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, of the impact on upstate if Democrats grab control of the Senate.

“Your readers should be concerned because their quality of life and their ability to stay in New York is going to disappear," Flanagan added in an interview this past week in the Senate GOP campaign office near the Capitol.

“I think that’s ridiculous," said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat, when told of Flanagan’s comments.

Also not surprisingly, Senate Democrats offered up hopeful rhetoric for a Senate under their control and note that the flight of upstate citizens, lackluster job growth in upstate compared with national or downstate levels, and the collapse of whole industries did not occur on their watch.

“The stress upstate feels with Albany is very well-founded and should be laid at the feet of those who have been in charge this whole time, and that’s the Senate Republicans. … Let’s give someone else a chance to do things better," said Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who heads the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee that is tasked with ending GOP control after much of the past 100 or so years.

Democrats press for takeover

Republicans have 31 seats in the 63-member Senate, and the Democratic conference holds 31 seats. The GOP is in charge because of one additional vote: a conservative, breakaway Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who conferences with the GOP.

After trying for years, Democrats in November are looking at their best prospects for taking control of the Senate. For starters, they are tapping into Democrats’ anxiety over President Trump with voters in blue state New York and in Senate districts that are now held by Republicans but in districts where there are more Democrats than GOP registered voters.

With a breeze at their back, Senate Democrats also have some party institutional backing, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appears to be making his first concerted effort to have the New York State Democratic Party – which he controls – work to oust the Republicans from Senate power. He’s making appearances with Democratic candidates and helping them raise money.

Depending on who is doing the spinning, a half-dozen or more seats are in play. Most of the hardest fought of those are on Long Island, Brooklyn and the lower- to mid-Hudson Valley.

But, should the Democrats take the Senate, here are some likely scenarios:

• The center of power in the Assembly, now based with Democrats from New York City, would be complemented by Senate Democrats from the five boroughs, thereby cementing power into the hands of lawmakers from the city or its nearby suburbs.

• Western New York faces the prospect of going from five members now in the Senate majority to one: Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat.

• If Democrats win Senate dominance and if they fail to pick up more seats upstate, there is the likelihood that a vast region – run a line from Buffalo to Albany and then go north and south between the borders of Pennsylvania and Quebec – would have just two returning senators in the Senate majority. A third could be Rachel May, a Democrat who defeated Democratic incumbent Sen. David Valesky of Oneida County; she faces a GOP challenger in the general election that Republicans say is a spirited contest. That region has 21 senators in the GOP majority, though several GOP senators are departing at the end of the year and their seats have open races next month.

“It’s to upstate’s detriment if New York City leadership is in control of all the branches of government," said Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican.

Gianaris, the Senate Democratic campaign leader, brushed aside the “scare tactics” raised by the GOP and said that the Democrats are intent to grow their ranks with upstate members – thereby moving northward its current base of power.

“The system in Albany is broken, and we intend to change the way things have been done for a very long time. The concept of upstate versus downstate and pitting one against each other is not working, and we intend to end it," the Queens Democrat said.

Upstate business groups worry

The Democrats did have a brief flirtation with power for two years beginning in 2009, a tumultuous time of big tax and spending increases and considerable in-fighting. Republicans go to that time as one of their chief talking points against the Democrats. In turn, Senate Democrats say their conference’s membership has changed greatly since 2009.

Some upstate business groups are watching with growing nervousness. “We are concerned about it and we’re watching it," said Dottie Gallagher, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, of the Senate control situation.

The head of the Buffalo area’s business lobbying group said it’s a bad idea to have all of state government controlled by a single party and her members believe upstate business interests will lose influence if the upstate GOP senators lose their majority status in Albany. Gallagher said it was upstate GOP senators who made sure, for instance, that Cuomo’s $15 per hour minimum wage plan is on a far slower implementation schedule for upstate than higher-wage areas downstate.

“If we’re only going to have one senator in the majority, Tim Kennedy is a great voice. But it’s not about that. It’s about who’s got the majority because when you’re in the minority you have less resources and less clout. Effectively, downstate will have 100 percent of the clout. Tim Kennedy can stand on top of the Capitol, but he’ll be one vote," Gallagher said.

Michael Kracker, executive director of Unshackle Upstate, an umbrella group of business organizations, likened the loss of influence upstate faces in Albany to New York State’s influence in Washington. “Think about it like in Washington. New York once had 45 members in Congress. Now, it’s 27, and it means our voice relative to the rest of the country has been diminished," he said, calling that scenario "not welcome news for upstate taxpayers and businesses."

Long-term power shift

A Democratic takeover of the Senate could result in a power shift that will last generations. Control of the Senate in 2019 would put the Senate Democrats in an even stronger position to increase seats in the 2020 elections, a presidential election year with higher turnout expected. That will make the Democrats masters of the redistricting process that will come out of the 2020 U.S. Census.

Every 10 years, legislative boundaries are re-drawn to take into account shifting population trends. For decades, Democrats have controlled that process in the Assembly and the GOP ran the line-drawing in the Senate. In particular, the Senate GOP has used redistricting as a way to help keep its power, going so far as to grow the size of the Senate twice to its current 63 members.

Now, there is a growing chance the Democrats will be in charge of the next redistricting process in New York – deciding the twists and turns of not only Assembly and Senate boundaries, but also congressional district lines. Senate Republicans say Democrats have privately told them they already can make a case for drawing up at least 40 “safe” districts for Democrats in the redistricting process expected in early 2022.

If they control the Senate come January, Democrats have vowed to push ahead with long-stalled items: new measures to deal with Albany’s corruption problems, ways to make it easier to vote in New York, limits on the state’s free-wheeling campaign finance laws, new guarantees and expanded access to abortion procedures and additional civil rights protections.

“I think it would be a radical change," Flanagan said of an all-Democratic Legislature.

Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic leader who could be part of Albany’s exclusive triumvirate of leaders who decide issues behind closed-doors, said Republicans have had their chance to improve upstate.

“We are very, very clear that New York State is one state, and that it is important that we grow the economy throughout the state. … I’m not entertaining pitting one part of New York against the other," the senator said.

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