Two months after Election Day, one failed leadership agreement and countless news stories detailing party infighting, State Senate Democrats’ life in the political wilderness finally came to an end on Jan. 8. Queens Democrat Malcolm Smith emerged as the Senate’s new majority leader, ending Republican control of that chamber for more than a generation.
Save for 1965, when a fluke in redistricting gave Democrats control of the state Senate for a year, Republicans have dominated the chamber since 1939.
Now, Democrats hold a slim 32-30 Senate majority, run the Assembly and occupy the Governor’s mansion, representing a shift in power that will have
ramifications throughout the state. And because the Democrats’ power base lies mainly in urban areas (the GOP caucus represents mostly rural and suburban swaths of upstate New York and Long Island), New York City will likely be a big winner in the coming year, with West Side legislators playing key roles in shaping the agenda.
“You will see greater attention paid to the urban needs including affordable housing, transportation and education in a way we have not seen before,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of the good government group Citizens Union.
Of course, Senate Democrats are also trying to make good on their 2008 campaign theme of “One New York” and demonstrate fairness toward the newly minted minority by giving upstate and rural Democratic Senators leadership positions and passing rules reforms on things like how bills get sponsored and move out of committees.
Still, with 23 out of 32 Democratic Senators representing parts of the five boroughs, the city is going to see an urban agenda become a legislative priority.
“There’s so much stuff we’ve been waiting for a Democratic majority to deal with,” said State Sen. Eric Schneiderman.
State Sen. Tom Duane is confident that a focus on urban issues will even affect outlying suburbs that have long elected Republicans. An urban issue like mass transit, Duane argued, benefits areas outside the city.
“If we’re going to have a greener cleaner city and greener cleaner suburbs, we have to discourage people from using private automobiles,” Duane said. “This is urban, but it also impacts other part of the state as well.”
A Democratic-led Senate is also expected to change the way Assembly Democrats craft and vote on legislation. When Republicans were in charge of the Senate, Democratic Assembly members commonly passed one-house bills that they knew would die in a Senate committee.
“The bills I knew that would never be taken up in the State Senate, I would find Democratic senators to carry my bill, looking forward to a time when they would be in the majority,” said Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal.
Common sense bills, such Rosenthal’s animal welfare legislation, were able to pass in a bipartisan manner. But she never found a Republican Senator who could match her zeal for ending vacancy decontrol (when an apartment is removed from rent regulation once the rent is more than $2,000 a month). Rosenthal said she is eager to pass legislation tackling that issue now that Democrats are in charge of the State Senate.
“We’re going to do bills that are helpful to the district,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a shift in attitude, not just a shift in party.”
Many Democratic senators spent years as ranking members of the committees they are about to chair. As chairs, these Senators will help shape the party’s agenda and become an influential voice in crafting and passing legislation, holding hearings and creating reports on issues that pass through their committees. Below is an overview of three West Side State Senators’ committee assignments and their goals for the coming legislative session.
Eric Schneiderman, 31st Senate District
Riverdale in the Bronx; Inwood, Washington Heights and parts of the Upper West Side in Manhattan
Committee: Codes, which deals with all bills pertaining to the criminal and civil justice system; comes with an $18,000 stipend
In the days of Republican control of the State Senate, the chair of the Codes Committee focused on passing punitive laws and was opposed to rolling back the state’s strict drug laws. Schneiderman, a reform-minded Senator and former deputy minority leader, now holds the gavel.
“There was a huge ideological gap with the Assembly Codes committee and the Senate Codes committee,” Schneiderman said. “I’m hoping we’re going to be able to do more about reforming the criminal justice system.”
One of Schneiderman’s first priorities, he said, is to roll back the so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws that critics say target a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos.
The committee, he said, will support programs that look to exonerate incarcerated New Yorkers through efforts like the expanded use of DNA evidence and updated statute of limitation laws.
Before his election to the State Senate in 1998, Schneiderman was an attorney and activist who founded the Attorney General’s Anti-Crime Advocates program. Schneiderman continued his legal activism as a State Senator, joining the Straphangers Campaign and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.
In the minority, Schneiderman was the ranking member of the Codes Committee.
“I love dealing with lawyerly issues,” Schneiderman said. “There’s a lot of room for reform.”
Bill Perkins, 30th Senate District
Harlem, Morningside Heights and parts of the Upper West Side
Committee: Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, which has jurisdiction over the state’s public authorities; comes with $15,000 stipend
State Sen. Bill Perkins will be in charge of overseeing New York’s public nearly 800 public authorities. However, if the Harlem Democrat has his way there may be fewer authorities—entities charted by the state to provide a public service.
“I want to make sure that those that are out there have a purpose and a reason,” Perkins said. “Sometimes they like to proliferate like rabbits.”
The budget deficit will likely be a top priority for Senate Democrats, and Perkins plans to use his committee to save a little money.
“Corporations could be consolidated and eliminated for a positive budget impact,” he said.
When he was in the minority, Perkins used his ranking member position to investigate the authorities that had power to affect development in his district. He held eminent domain hearings when the Empire State Development Corporation invoked that power to help Columbia University expand into Harlem.
One of Perkins’ priorities for the committee is adding transparency to how authorities operate; he likened them to “secret governments” that function with little oversight.
“Now that I’m in the chair, we will look at them closer from a position of power,” Perkins said, “and be able to do something legislatively about it.”
Tom Duane, 29th Senate District
Parts of the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village, Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village and Union Square
Committee: Health, which covers all health-related bills, including those dealing with access and insurance and comes with $15,000 stipend; Chair of Majority Program Development Committee, comes with a $25,000 stipend
In his nearly 10 years as a minority in the State Senate, Tom Duane always wore his progressive label proudly. Now that he is in the majority—and new chair of the Health Committee—he says he will put his passion into practice.
With Duane at the helm, the Health Committee will be more proactive and deal with preventative measures, a distinctly new direction.
Many of the health bills that easily passed through the more liberal Assembly—including the Healthy Teens Act, sex education and updating the state’s outdated abortion laws—may see the day of light in Duane’s Senate committee.
“I have a more mainstream Democratic Party point of view on health care,” Duane said, “and in many ways, I’m more progressive in my thinking on how to provide health care.”
One of Duane’s long-term goals is making universal health care a reality in New York State. In the meantime, he wants to pass legislation that will expand Family Health Plus and Child Health Plus and raise the income ceiling to allow more families to join the programs.
“Slowly but surely, we can add the number of people in the healthcare system,” Duane said.
Duane comes into his new position with a personal and unique connection to the importance of access to health care. Elected to the City Council in 1991, Duane, who is openly gay, became the first openly HIV-positive elected official in the country.
“In my 30s and 40s, I spent a lot more time in hospitals someone my age would be,” Duane said. “The qualification that’s most important is my passion.”
Trackback from your site.