1199 SEIU ends longtime deal with Senate Republicans

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Members of 1199 SEIU at a protest. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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ALBANY—For the first time in more than a decade, the State Senate Republicans aren't getting any money from the state's powerful health care workers' union at election time. 

“We won’t be giving any money to the Republicans,” 1199’s political director Kevin Finnegan told Capital. “We haven’t since the last election cycle. We normally don’t endorse or make contributions until after the session’s over but we are definitely on board with a Democratic-coordinated effort to take back the Senate.”

The union is one of a handful of labor groups, including the United Federation of Teachers, the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Workers’ Union and the Hotel Trades Council, that agreed to form a coalition along with Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and members of the Working Families Party to help Democrats take control of the Senate, which the Republicans have controlled for all but two of the last 50 years.

Cuomo committed to helping Democrats as part of the multi-varied terms of his endorsement deal with the W.F.P. last weekend. The governor and the union coalition will pool resources and create a $10 million fund to spend on Democratic Senate races.

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Finnegan said the union would not rule out endorsing some Republican senators in individual races, but said such an endorsement would be unlikely in districts with competitive two-party races.

“I don’t know of any races that are competitive where we would be supporting a Republican,” he said.

That decision represents a sea change in how 1199 wields its influence in the New York State Senate.

For more than a decade, the union has been one of the Senate G.O.P.’s most important allies.

Years before Dean Skelos became the Republicans’ leader, the union had formed a pragmatic alliance with former Senate majority leader Joe Bruno.

In exchange, Bruno formed a bulwark against governors George Pataki and Eliot Spitzer as they attempted to slash the state’s ballooning $54 billion Medicaid budget, cuts the union vehemently opposed.

Since the late 1990’s the union’s political giving has followed the same pattern every election cycle, giving the bulk of its donations to maintain the Democrats’ majority in the State Assembly and Republican control of the Senate.

Since 1999, the union has given more than $2.5 million to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and its housekeeping account, as well as individual G.O.P. senators’ campaign accounts.

During the same period, the union has given about $504,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which funds Senate Democrats’ races.

Finnegan said that this year's move is “absolutely” a deliberate shift from the union’s previous strategy in Senate races.

“The governor has decided to go all out for the Democrats and we are with the governor and we are going to support him in that effort,” he said.

While the exact details of the coalition’s effort, including who will spend what and how, are still unclear, “there’s a sense that most of the large unions are on board with this same strategy” of not donating to the SRCC, Finnegan said.

He said he was confident Democrats can take back the Senate. Democrats technically represent a majority in the chamber, but the conference has suffered a spate of defections and indictments. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who was elected in 2012, caucuses with Republicans. Two elected Democrats, John Sampson and Malcolm Smith, have been expelled from the Democratic conference because they are under indictment. Eric Adams left his office last fall after winning his race for Brooklyn borough president. And, for the last two years, the Senate has been controlled by a coalition of Republicans and the Independent Democratic Coalition, a breakaway faction of Democrats headed by Bronx senator Jeff Klein.

Finnegan said the union had not yet decided whether to support primary challengers to the five members of the I.D.C.

“We’ll look at each of those races, race by race,” he said.

A Republican operative involved with past State Senate races said the party expected 1199's move would do little to impact the Senate's chances in this fall's elections. 

--additional reporting by Will Brunelle