ALBANY – Two Republican senators, including one from Western New York, are feverishly vying for a Senate leadership job with zero power in Albany over policy matters, the state budget or even parking lot assignments at the Capitol.
Yet, senators John Flanagan of Long Island and Catharine Young from Olean, are coveting the right to be called Senate Minority Leader come January.
That’s when the GOP turns over the keys of the Senate to the Democrats, who will have an overwhelming majority when they come into power: 40 members of their conference compared with 23 for Republicans.
Flanagan, the current Senate Majority Leader, and Young, the head of the Senate GOP campaign finance committee, have been burning up their phone lines in a pitched battle against each other. The voters are the 21 other Senate Republicans who will be returning to Albany.
It all could come to a head as early as Friday. That's when the Senate Republicans, for the first time since their election day losses last week, will come to the Capitol to discuss their future in the minority and to, theoretically at least, pick a new leader.
Like so often in New York, it’s become an upstate vs. downstate matter, though with some interesting twists.
Some Senate Republicans, including Robert Ortt of Niagara County, say the new minority leader should hail from upstate. They note that the GOP’s only stronghold in the Senate is upstate; Long Island will have just three Senate Republicans, down from nine just a couple years ago. And in January, there will be a sole Republican from New York City – Sen. Andrew Lanza of Staten Island.
In less than two months, all the branches of government will be Democratic-run, including the Senate, which had been the final power perch in Albany for upstate.
“Upstate New York and the people who live north of Westchester County stand to lose the most due to this new power dynamic," Ortt said this week. Ortt has not sided, publicly anyway, with any particular candidate.
But then there are Senate Republicans such as Chris Jacobs from Buffalo. He also has not publicly backed a candidate for the minority leader job.
How does he feel about the "only-an-upstater for the job" theory?
“I would look more at getting assurances that there will be a real focus on upstate. I think that can be achieved in different ways. Having someone from the other end of the state who appreciates the importance of upstate may end up leveraging more focus here in upstate," Jacobs said.
It’s an internalized debate taking place among the two candidates and 21 people. Some senators expressed dissatisfaction with those publicly discussing their preference. Some are concerned about outside groups’ involvement, like the real estate developers and a gun rights group Young has touted as backing her for the job.
Flanagan and Young have both turned down interview requests this week. They’ve issued statements of various sorts, like blasting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s deal – costing taxpayers from New York State and New York City $3 billion in grants and tax breaks – to lure Amazon to Queens. But the messages seemed more directed at burnishing an image of looking like a future minority leader – and therefore the voice of the opposition in the Senate – than any sort of external public relations messaging.
Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican, said it’s not appropriate for him to discuss the situation "until I talk to my Senate colleagues” on Friday. Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer, an Amherst Republican, said discussions over the minority leader’s slot “takes place among members of the conference.’’
“I’m not in favor of people either campaigning for it or talking about it trying to influence people by making public statements," he added.
But does Flanagan need to be tossed from a power position after the GOP was so handily ousted from power? He noted both Flanagan and Young are top leaders of the Senate GOP: one as majority leader, the other as head of the Senate Finance Committee and leader of the GOP re-election campaign.
“Obviously, both bear responsibility because they were both in charge of the election effort," Ranzenhofer said of Flanagan and Young.
The senator said another candidate could still emerge, but no one else, including himself, has expressed an interest in the job.
Powerless perhaps, but the position is an important one for the GOP, senators say. “It’s the second-most important position in the Senate other than majority leader," Ranzenhofer said, adding that the winner of the job must be able to articulate positions on key positions as members of the opposition party in the Senate.
“Just because we’re not in the majority doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to represent our constituents," he said. "That doesn’t change just because we are now in the minority."
The minority leader post does pay its occupant a stipend of $34,500 on top of the Legislature's base pay of $79,500. That would be a $500 raise for Young from what she gets as Senate Finance Committee chairwoman, but a pay cut for Flanagan, whose majority leader title, until December 31, has been worth an additional $41,500 annually above the base salary rate.