An Uphill Fight For Average Joes In New York

Sam Rayburn, a man of few words and former Speaker of the House, is purported to have said: “If you’ve got the votes, call the roll.” That is the way it has always been in this Republic and, hopefully, always will be.

Thus, it should be of some concern to Upstate New York voters as to what is going on in the New York state Senate. For years, at least during my lifetime, the New York state Senate has been controlled by Republicans. The two years that wasn’t the case, 2009-10, the state Senate fell into chaos. At first, the Senate Republicans organized with the help of a maverick Democratic senator (now a convicted felon). Then that senator “shifted colors,” jumped ship back into Democratic ranks and, for a while, the state Senate was controlled by Democrats. During all of this, the state Senate took on a circus atmosphere and, at times, to upstaters, it looked liked a dysfunctional subcommittee of the New York City Council. In the election of 2010, state Senate Republicans regained control of the chamber. Now, in 2013, they have announced that they are hooking up with another group of Democratic senators who call themselves the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). (From whom they are “independent” is unclear since they all hail from New York City.)

So what are the political realities? First of all, as Sam Rayburn advised, look at the votes and where they come from. There are 63 Senators in the New York state Senate. It takes 32 senators to pass a bill. There are 40 senators who live south of the Tappan Zee Bridge on the Hudson River. (The majority of votes in the state Senate and Assembly are located in New York City and its suburbs.) Thus, conventional reality had been, at least until 2009, that upstate Republican senators would combine forces with suburban New York Republicans (Westchester and Long Island) and forge a Republican majority in the New York state Senate. That majority has been effective, over the years, in helping protect upstate interests in the state legislature.

Mind you, that doesn’t mean that upstate always controls those politics. As with Democrats, Republican statewide office holders come almost inevitably from New York City or its suburbs. Nevertheless, Republican “downstaters” need upstate to win their primary elections, and so there has always been a close tie between upstate and downstate in Republican politics.

One day, years ago, through sheer chance, I sat in front of U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato at a Buffalo Bills game. He had just been elected to this new office. We didn’t know each other, but I saw it as a chance to lobby for upstate and for the Southern Tier. I turned around in my seat and said: “Sen. D’Amato, you don’t know me but I come from the Southern Tier. Just remember one thing,” I said, “Route 17, the Southern Tier Expressway. Get it built and you will get re-elected!” “Ya, ya, I get it, I get it!” he responded. And he did get it. He helped get federal funding to finish the highway and had some successful re-elections before finally being defeated by our now very able and visible Sen. Schumer.

But, that whole experience with Sen. D’Amato was an important reminder to me of another matter. D’Amato had been a relatively unknown town supervisor in Nassau County on Long Island before being handpicked by his powerful and very formidable county chairman, Joe Margiotta, to run in a primary against Sen. Jacob Javits. (Margiotta and Javits had a falling out and it ended up in a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.) Back in those days, Nassau and Suffolk counties and the suburbs around New York had some real clout in Republican politics. They could elect Republicans statewide. They also elected a lot of Republican state senators who, in turn, helped keep the state Senate Republican.

After the recent two-year debacle in the state Senate under Republican and then Democratic control, state Senate Republicans were given a second chance and, as I mentioned, were elected to a new majority in 2010. They even added an additional Senate district in reapportionment to try and bolster their chances to maintain a majority. However, today, they are holding on “by the skin of their teeth,” and in one district they are counting on, the Republican is only ahead by 37 votes and could lose the election. Thus, they have reached out to this new Independent Democratic Conference to try and survive.

You and I, average upstate “Joes,” need to hope that they somehow can hang on. A Republican state Senate is probably better for us than what we can hope for with another Democratic majority based out of New York City. However, let’s not think that this new coalition being talked about with the so-called “IDC” is necessarily a workable solution. It is not a “marriage made in heaven.” It is not even a marriage of convenience. It is a marriage of necessity as Senate Republicans try to hang on in what has become a watershed political moment for them.

In some ways, I empathize with state Senate Republicans. Many of them are what we now call “moderates”- an appellation which the right wing of the Republican party deems synonymous with heresy. When they start to make progress on electing state Senators in places like Long Island, they run into national opposition from their own party on social issues, reproductive rights, and “yes”, aid for Hurricane Sandy – all of which turns off voters in the suburbs of New York. There are twice as many Democrats in New York state as there are Republicans and not many Joe Margiotta’s around anymore – so all of this is an uphill fight. But, maybe they can prevail in maintaining control in the New York state Senate. Time will tell. Keep your fingers crossed. Upstate interests may well be in the balance.

A Chautauqua County resident interested in analyzing public policy from a long-term perspective writes these views under the name Hall Elliot.