ALBANY – Nearly 42,000 square miles.
That’s the area of upstate that will now have just three state lawmakers in power positions in a new Senate session come January when Democrats assume control of the 63-member chamber.
The three Democrats, including state Sen. Timothy Kennedy of South Buffalo, will derive their influence by being members of the Senate majority in a legislative body where, like the Assembly, minority party members have no say in what goes into the $170 billion state budget each year, or what bills get passed or even what offices they are given or how many staffers they get to hire.
It is a historic change for upstate New York, which has enjoyed its share of influence in Albany because of the 19 Republican senators who represented upstate urban, suburban and rural areas as members of the Senate’s majority.
That changed overnight, and in a big way.
One seat short of a majority before the elections, Senate Democrats saw their ranks grow from its current 31 members to likely 39 members in a humiliating series of GOP defeats on Tuesday. The losses were plain to see on the glum faces of Senate Republican staffers on Wednesday at the Capitol, many of whom will be out of jobs soon. Republicans are set to have 23 members and it’s not clear yet where Simcha Felder, a breakaway Democrat from Brooklyn who has conferenced with the GOP, will end up.
The Senate Democratic conference will have 26 Democrats representing parts of New York City. Downstate also gets additional majority firepower by Senate seats the party dominates in the suburbs to the north of the city. Importantly, though, now Long Island, too, becomes a Democratic Senate power base, as the party appears to have taken over six of nine Senate seats in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
In a large stretch of area between Buffalo and Rochester, there will be three Democrats, including a newcomer who won a Mohawk Valley seat.
A leading upstate business group wasted no time signaling its worries. While offering an olive branch to the now all-Democratic leadership in Albany – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the majority leader in-waiting – Unshackle Upstate sought to highlight the economic woes still plaguing upstate.
“We encourage Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders to reject measures that would hurt the struggling upstate economy," said Michael Kracker, the group’s executive director.
A major power shift at play
Republicans not only lost, but they were blasted out of the Senate control in a turf they had long called home: Long Island. Changing demographics had weakened their once iron grip on Senate districts. Only a couple years ago, they still managed to occupy all nine Long Island Senate seats. They called themselves the “Long Island Nine.’’ After Tuesday’s results, they are the “Long Island Three," as Democrats picked up five seats in Nassau and one in Suffolk county.
It means the Senate domination will be focused, come January, from about central Long Island west into New York City and north into the nearby suburbs and up to about Orange County in the Hudson River Valley.
So, what now for upstate’s future when it won’t be represented by someone who calls the area home in any statewide office or most of the majority members of the two houses?
Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who ran the party’s successful campaign committee that took control of the Senate, said a couple of things will be happening that should dissuade fears by upstate residents.
For starters, Gianaris said Kennedy and Sen. Neil Breslin, an Albany area Democrat, are members of the Senate Democratic leadership team “and we’re going to listen very closely to what those senators have to say on issues of importance to their communities."
Secondly, Gianaris said the Democrats are already eyeing Senate Republicans, like those in Western New York, who now represent districts with more Democratic voters than Republicans. “They should be looking over their shoulders because (President) Trump is on the ballot in two years," Gianaris said of the 2020 elections when Democrats in blue state New York hope to use the GOP president’s re-election bid to rally Democratic voters to turn out and oust more Senate Republicans.
Finally, Gianaris insisted the Senate Democrats won’t be like the Senate Republicans, who cut the minority party out of any life's role in Albany. “We are committed to breaking the Albany mold," he said, which will stop “the divisive game the Republicans played” and “be sensitive to regional needs."
Republican staffers on Wednesday already were being told the bad news: expect to leave their jobs by Dec. 31. Some will stay, but Democrats are expected to clean house and, with the spoils of their majority status, will have far more employees on staff than the Republicans come January.
Sen. Robert Ortt, a Niagara County Republican, on Wednesday worried how the diverse set of issues facing upstate will be addressed by a downstate-dominated Senate and Assembly. He said it's likely cities like Buffalo will be treated fairly given Kennedy's presence, but he wondered how suburban and rural areas won't be hurt on such matters as public school and infrastructure funding.
Of the three senators who will be in the majority from upstate, Ortt said: "How much weight are they going to carry in a conference dominated by the five boroughs of New York City and now Long Island?"
"Even when (Republicans) had the majority it was a challenge,'' Ortt said of getting upstate issues addressed. "So, now I can't believe it's going to be easier for upstate,'' he said.
Kennedy, who attended a Democratic victory party on Long Island Tuesday night, on Wednesday said “any narrative that upstate will lose its voice, or its representation, is simply untrue." He said he’s spoken with Democratic senators and “made clear that our conference must represent all New Yorkers, regardless of ZIP code.’’
Kennedy said the Senate Democratic views on an assortment of issues, including expanded civil and criminal protections for child victims of sexual abuse or infrastructure spending hikes, “reflects our region’s values and priorities."
Cuomo predicts stalled measures’ approval
Democrats have vowed that a series of left-leaning policies will be enacted within the first 100 days of the all-Democratic takeover in Albany starting Jan. 1. They include new immigrant rights, expansion of abortion access, dropping the linkage between teacher evaluation and student test scores and legalization of recreational marijuana.
In a radio interview Wednesday, Cuomo – who has supported all those Democratic ideas – suggested the Senate will not move as far to the left as many pundits believe.
The Democratic governor said the state “is not one dimensionally politically," and noted the Senate has some of the nation’s most liberal and conservative districts in the nation. He said he believes Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat who will become majority leader in January, understands that statewide dynamic.
Cuomo sought to take a victory lap via an interview with a friendly Westchester County radio station whose owner is longtime friends of the Cuomo family. “It allows me to get things done that we haven’t been able to do before," Cuomo said of the Senate flip.
Senate Republicans voiced skepticism given what the last brief experience New York saw with a Democratic-run Senate.
"The question is will hey be inclusive and work across the aisle to get things done, will they treat every region of the state fairly, and will they embrace centrist policies that appeal to the most New Yorkers? We are certainly willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but our hope is they govern much differently than they did in 2009-10. Middle-class taxpayers from Upstate to Long Island are facing an affordability crisis that must be addressed, and it’s going to take everyone working together to solve it,'' said Scott Reif, a spokesman for Sen. John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican who will be losing his title as Senate Majority Leader in less than two months when Democrats take over.
For his part, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, on Wednesday issued an 1,100-word wish list of items he says Assembly Democrats have long sought and now believe will become law next year. Some were vague – like making “smart investments” in economic development – and others mirrored ones Cuomo and Senate Democrats have promised to do, such as funding college grants for children of undocumented immigrants.
“In recent years, we have had to contend with a Republican Senate that limited our progress. But last night, New Yorkers and people across the country voted overwhelmingly to reject the status quo. Now it is up to us to deliver the results working with the new Senate Democratic majority," Heastie said.