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COMMENTARY

Bob McCarthy: Winds of change lift up Kennedy

Tim Kennedy could hardly relax a few days ago at the Wayside Restaurant on South Park Avenue – too many friends and constituents were lining up to chat or shake his hand.

That’s the way it is in tight-knit South Buffalo. That’s also the deal for politicians.

But for Kennedy, the lines to chat or shake hands will only grow longer now that he sits in the State Senate’s new Democratic majority. After years of Democratic irrelevance in the Senate, Kennedy suddenly becomes Mr. Popularity.

“It’s different, but definitely something we’ve been striving for,” he said. “There is a responsibility to represent our community in the majority, and ultimately to deliver in ways we could not with the Republicans in charge.”

For years, the Senate’s Republican majority seemed to just hang on – staving off Democrats as the state assumed a deeper and deeper shade of blue. The GOP gerrymandered, expanded seats into friendly upstate areas, and even aligned with renegade Dems in something called the Independent Democratic Caucus to maintain power. But everyone knew a Democratic majority would someday take over.

In November, it did. Democrats now rule the upper house 40-23 in the most significant election result of recent years.

For Kennedy, anyway, it’s all good. He emerges as one of three majority senators in all of upstate. That compares to five Republicans from Western New York alone in the majority now exiting the scene. And on Tuesday he was appointed chairman of the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“It will be a great position of influence for our community,” he said. “Western New York’s voice will be heard loud and clear. And I’ve built relationships to drive the agenda.”

Changes are already evident. Even before the election, a Senate fundraising event he helped host drew record attendance and record dollars. Sen. Mike Gianaris of Queens, in charge of electing Democrats to the Senate, called it the most successful event of its kind ever held in Buffalo.

“It was indicative of the belief and confidence that Democrats would take the majority,” Kennedy said. “It gave us the resources to help get our conference over the finish line.”

Kennedy has evolved during his eight years in Albany. He embraced Conservative Party backing during his first run in 2010, but gave that up soon after joining up with the downstate liberals running the Senate. At one time he was pro-life, but switched to supporting abortion rights in 2014, attracting the criticism of Bishop Richard J. Malone.

And after then-County Legislator Betty Jean Grant came within a whisker of knocking him off in 2012, he seriously dove into the city’s African-American community, showing up at church services each Sunday and cementing his position with the Democratic Party’s key constituency.

He was also savvy enough to reject IDC “feelers” when the group shared power with Republicans.

“I was courted, but I said no,” he says now. “I always have been and always will be a Democrat who feels strongly about the direction of our party. I did the right thing, and I suppose it worked out because the IDC got annihilated.

“Because of the decision I made not to join,” he adds, “it catapulted me to a tremendous position of influence.”

Now he’s ready to embrace much of the Senate’s progressive proposals that for years were stymied by the Republican majority: campaign finance reform, new ways of funding education, reform of ethics laws, early voting, the “10th point” that expands abortion rights in New York, and others.

But he will face tremendous pressure to deliver, not settling for “crumbs” thrown to upstate by a government now totally dominated by downstaters. He calls warnings of New York City control “a scare tactic used by the Republicans who have dominated the Senate for the past 100 years.”

“The Republicans, namely the ones from Long Island, have dictated the direction of state government for generations,” he says. “This is our turn.”

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