In the State Senate, historic Democratic victories come with an asterisk

Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders. (Governor Andrew Cuomo, via flickr)
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ALBANY—Only here, perhaps, could such a decisive election result in even more confusion about who's in charge.

Yes, there was good news for the Democrats, almost across the board: Barack Obama won big. Kirsten Gillibrand, running for her first full term in the U.S. Senate, won even bigger.

And despite contending with a Republican-gerrymandered district map, the Democrats appear to have picked up four seats in the State Senate, theoretically enough to give them 33 of its 63 seats and, along with that majority, the power to control every aspect of its operations.

Along with Andrew Cuomo's governorship and Sheldon Silver's unassailable Assembly majority, this would put Democratic hands on every lever of power in the state government.

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Except that's not the way it's playing out.

The Republicans are currently negotiating with several breakaway Democrats to join them and keep them in the majority, extending their hold on the Senate despite a 2-1 voter registration disadvantage in New York State, while the supposedly ascendant Democrats negotiate among themselves over leadership positions.

This movie has screened in the Capitol before. In 2008, Democrats won 32 seats but spent two months bickering, extorting and cajoling each other to fall in behind Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith. Four years later, Albany is braced for the action to begin anew.

“We’re popping popcorn," is how one Assembly aide put it to me.

A key question now, as was the case four years ago, is how much the Democrats are willing to bend to accommodate dissident members who have problems with the current leadership, or want special treatment or (as is most often the case) both.

The first defectors of 2012 actually went public in January 2011, when State Senators Jeff Klein, Diane Savino, David Valesky and David Carlucci formed the Independent Democratic Conference.

South Brooklyn, which gave Albany the wayward Democrat (and now convicted extortionist) Carl Kruger in 2008, has added a new freelancer to the mix: Simcha Felder, an orthodox Jew who ran as a Democrat but is loyal, above all, to pork: he says he’ll “caucus with any party that will allow me to deliver the most to the 17th Senate district and its constituents.”

Also, amusingly, Smith—whose leadership four years ago was rendered embarrassingly ineffectual by his conference's defectors, and who is no longer in a meaningful leadership position—is now rumored to be flirting with a party switch, after having floated his own name to run for mayor of New York City next year as a Republican.

In 2008, Smith dealt with Kruger and three co-conspirators—Sens. Ruben Diaz Sr., Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate, known collectively as the “amigos”—by essentially giving them what they wanted. Espada was put in charge of the Housing Committee, allowing him to harvest campaign cash from real estate interests, and also given a suite of Capitol offices. Monserrate eventually got the Consumer Affairs Committee. Diaz, a Pentecostal reverend, seemingly secured a promise from Smith not to push the legalization of same-sex marriage (both men denied this, but Diaz, in subsequent rants when the bill was advanced, strongly implied Smith had given him his word). Kruger bumped Bill Stachowski, a dour, long-serving senator from Buffalo, to chair the Finance Committee.

The other mainstream Democrats held their noses.

Smith, a father of two, had apparently never read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The amigos replayed the same trick as the state debated a bailout package for the M.T.A., refusing to vote for any plan that would include tolls on East River bridges. They succeeded: instead, the bailout relied on a business payroll tax that led to the defeat of two marginal senators from Long Island—Craig Johnson and Brian Foley—in 2010.

“Most of us were there in 2008, and we’re not going to repeat those mistakes,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan.

Since Smith's fall, Senator John Sampson of Brooklyn has led the Democratic conference. The ever-present discontented murmuring about Sampson's leadership seemed to crescendo toward the end of the last session, and several other Democrats, including Mike Gianaris, who masterminded this last campaign, now say a leader will be determined by the conference in some future process.

But in a sense, the Democratic conference is already, as Krueger says, very different now. There are 14 Democratic senators—almost half the conference—who were elected after 2008, and every amigo except Diaz has been forced from office by criminal probes.

As Krueger bluntly promised: “We’re going to go into a majority with a much, much better group of apples and without any of that kind of crap.”

Michael Kink, a former senior policy adviser to the Senate Democrats who now works for a labor-backed coalition, said some of the “dead wood” has been cleared from the conference. He was confident a deal could be struck through negotiations rooted in “principle.”

“Many of the folks who got elected this cycle, they’ve all had experience as elected officials and they’re very seriously accomplished people,” he said. “They’re not political hacks, they’re not dead wood. There was a long time when being a minority state senator didn’t give you an opportunity to do much.”

There are still several things that have to happen before any serious negotiations can even begin. First, the Democrats’ Election Night victories will have to be affirmed. The only one with a reasonable chance of being undone is in the 46th District, which runs just west of the Capital Region from Amsterdam to Kingston. The Republicans sculpted it during this year’s redistricting process for Assemblyman George Amedore, a Republican from the Albany-Schenectady suburbs who is the scion of an eponymous house-building company. He won a special election after being featured in "Extreme Makeover Home Edition." (Seriously.)

He finished 139 votes behind Cecilia Tkaczyk, a former Senate aide who serves on a rural school board and had a de minimus public profile in the five-county district before two Super PACs spent $500,000 pushing her candidacy.

This recount is key. If Tkaczyk holds, Democrats will be in a place of strength when they speak with Felder and the Independent Democrats. If Amedore is able to win, Republicans could cobble together 32 votes by just co-opting Felder, avoiding the need for them to convince the I.D.C. to complete their break with the regular Democrats by formally supporting them.

“No one wants to show their cards unless they have to,” said United Federation of Teachers president Mike Mulgrew, whose organization has an interest in seeing a working Democratic majority, which would presumably be friendlier to the union's interests than the Republican majority has been. “I’m sure it’s going to be a drama worthy of Shakespeare.”

The talks between the regular Democrats and Klein's group won't be easy, or particularly cordial. Klein has compared his former Democratic colleagues to a “circular firing squad,” and they have in turn likened him to a petulant child

Still, they come from the same party and, on most issues, they align ideologically.

The Republicans, though, emphasize their good relations with Klein, as they continue to talk to him about some sort of leadership deal.

Cuomo, for his part, has hinted that the next Senate majority might be cobbled together between the I.D.C. and G.O.P., and has insisted that he won't get involved in the process either way.

Cuomo's office, for obvious reasons, is saying that he'll be pleased, whatever the outcome. If it's the Democrats, well, they'll help him work toward common progressive goals. And if it's the Republicans, he'll continue to work with them as he has over the course of his first two years in office.

Cuomo's actions suggest that he'd prefer the Republicans.

He has boasted about his ability to work with the current Republican leadership, and has been helpful to the conference's efforts to hang onto the majority, from his approval of a majority-gerrymandered district map to his general-election endorsement of a Republican incumbent who had voted for same-sex marriage. (The Republican, Stephen Saland, lost.)

A G.O.P.-I.D.C. alliance only seems possible with Cuomo’s support, tacit or not, because it is the only thing that could counter the force of Democratic allies they might anger. There’s a reason legislators who flip from one party to the other are rarely re-elected.

And independent of Cuomo, there's a reason to believe the current Democratic leaders might be more successful in corralling the Klein-led faction this year than their counterparts were in their dealings with the amigos, and it has to do with Klein himself. A Bronx attorney who has been in the Senate since 2004, Klein is as ambitious as the next guy. But Klein is driven by a desire for influence more than money or perks. An amigo he is not.

If the Democrats reach a deal with Klein to bring his faction back into the party, expect it to include some sort of fancy title that gives him some control over legislation, or at the very least fractures the influence currently vested in the leader position.

(The I.D.C.’s official line, delivered by a spokesman, is that “We’re humbled that so many New Yorkers came out yesterday to cast a ballot in support of the I.D.C.’s policy-driven agenda. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, New York families and businesses need a strong, stable government now more than ever. We look forward to getting back to the people’s business right away.”)

There's one other reason to believe that the current Senate situation will not play in the same disastrous way that it did in 2008 and 2009: the people doing the negotiating now remember how bad it was back then.

As Cuomo put it: “I think they learned the hard way. The Democrats were in power; the Democrats then lost power because of the dysfunction. They learned that lesson the hard way.”

Jimmy Vielkind is a political reporter for the Albany Times Union and the principal contributor to its Capitol Confidential blog.

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