Around the Empire State this week New Yorkers from across the political spectrum have been scrambling to assess what it means when New York State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), one of the most powerful people in Albany, stepped down as senate majority leader so Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) could step up into the role.
Some say it opens up the opportunity for major reform, others are more cynical that nothing will change. But one thing everyone can agree on. The capital has been in a constant state of historic upheaval since Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, took aim at what he called an unprecedented level of government corruption after Gov. Andrew Cuomo suspended the Moreland Commission last summer.
First in Bharara’s sights was the Democrat-dominated state Assembly. A little more than three months ago Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) gave up his leadership post to Assemb. Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) after Silver was charged in January with taking almost $4 million in kickbacks.
Last week, it was the Republican-led state Senate’s turn after Skelos was arrested along with his son, Adam, on federal corruption charges, which included steering a $12 million Nassau County storm-water contract to Arizona-based AbTech Industries–a contract that the county has since suspended.
Meanwhile, both Silver and Skelos continue to serve their constituents pending the resolution of the charges they confront; each say they’re innocent.
But, thanks to the federal prosecutor based in Manhattan, two of the fabled “three men in a room,” the Albany power trio that includes the governor, the Assembly speaker and the senate majority leader, have new faces.
That doesn’t mean that Cuomo can gloat because his popularity has hit the lowest point since he became governor in 2011, according to a new poll conducted by Marist College and released on Tuesday. His approval ratings peaked at 59 percent in October 2012. This month, his job-performance rating had fallen to 37 percent. Still, it could be worse: 23 percent of the poll’s 712 registered voters gave a thumbs-up for the job the state Senate was doing while only 20 percent said they approved of the Assembly’s performance.
Around here, a partisan few took Flanagan’s promotion as a giant leap forward for Suffolk County, marking a shift in power from Nassau’s traditional Republican base. But that’s not how most of New York saw it: more like “Keeping It On Long Island,” given that he’s one of the LI Nine, a significant bloc of Republican senators that surely must rankle upstate sensibilities.
Until the announcement this week, Flanagan’s chief rival to succeed Skelos was Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse), the chairman of the finance committee. Flanagan chaired the education committee, as opponents of the Common Core curriculum know full well, and as such, they draw no distinction between Flanagan’s stand and that of Cuomo.
“Unfortunately John Flanagan comes to his position with a track record that is not very good,” said Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre and an outspoken critic of the Common Core curriculum, who is taking early retirement in order to oppose it. “Flanagan supported the bill, which increased test scores to 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation while adding an unfunded mandate for outside evaluators to observe teachers. He has been a strong supporter of charter schools, which drain money from our public schools, and has supported the Common Core… Let’s hope that in his new position he begins to listen and respond, and peels his education policies from Governor Cuomo’s.”
Another thing that Flanagan and Cuomo have in common is that they both come from political families. Now 54, Flanagan was only 25 years old when he was first elected to the Assembly, replacing his father, a popular Long Island politician, who had died in office. Cuomo’s father, Mario, served three gubernatorial terms in Albany and lived long enough to see his son sworn in for his second term as governor on Jan. 1, 2015.
By all accounts, Gov. Cuomo had a good relationship with Skelos, and observers don’t see any ideological difference between Skelos and Flanagan. How the governor will get along personally with the new majority leader remains to be seen.
“Flanagan’s been up there a long time, and Flanagan’s father dealt with Mario,” said Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University and a former Newsday columnist and editorial writer. “These are two families that have politics as part of their DNA. They’re both heirs to political dynasties. The Flanagans are less well known statewide but no less committed to politics and public service.”
To Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz and a long-time observer of New York politics, it’s almost Freudian.
“We have a governor who’s trying to live up to his father, a senator who’s trying to live up to his father, and an Assembly leader who’s trying to live down his mother!” he joked.
Speaker Heastie’s mother, Helene, had pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree grand larceny after she was arrested for embezzling almost $200,000 from a nonprofit she ran in the Bronx in the 1990s whose mission was to help the elderly and the infirm. Sentenced for five years’ probation, she died soon after her conviction, according to the New York Daily News.
“The No. 1 problem in Albany is the culture of corruption,” said Lisa Tyson, Long Island Progressive Coalition director. “Five senate leaders in a row have been faced with criminal corruption charges. When the richest of the rich are bankrolling campaigns, the issues that matter to everyday New Yorkers, like good jobs, housing and rent, student loans, climate change and educational opportunity, all take a back seat. So replacing Senator Skelos with Senator Flanagan won’t mean much change at all. Because the system is still corrupt.”
On Tuesday, local residents and activists from a range of organizations gathered in front of Skelos’ district office, where they rallied to criticize him and other senators for blocking “meaningful reform.” The protesters included members of unions such as SEIU 32 BJ, CWA 1108 and UFCW Local 1500, advocacy groups like Alliance for Quality Education, Long Island Jobs with Justice, La Fuente, Long Island Immigrant Alliance, Long Island Progressive Coalition, Long Island Transgender Advocacy Coalition, Make the Road, New York for Communities Change, New York Immigration Coalition, NARAL and the Working Families Party.
Their efforts have a long history behind them.
“Closing the door on corruption in New York is a practice that has been going on a couple hundred years,” Professor Benjamin told the Press. “So we need to start thinking about inviting people into the political system who are not going to be corrupt, rather than try to catch the people who are corrupt after they’re in.”
Benjamin thought it was very noteworthy that it took a federal prosecutor “who’s really shaken the state system.” As for the governor’s own commitment to imposing ethical standards and implementing campaign finance and redistricting reform, Benjamin said it could have gone better.
“He has given way on those issues to get other things done that he thinks are important,” Benjamin said. “He ended up with an egg on his face when he gave the state of the state [speech in January and used an image that] put himself in a boat with two guys who are now under indictment.”
But, there are points in the plus column for Cuomo, he noted.
“The governor has achieved great progress on the fiscal side in the state during his first four years and took some risks on the social side that diminished his margin in the election and had some unexpected negatives politically,” Benjamin said. “The governor’s challenge is that he’s not loved.”
Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs thinks the change in leadership helps the governor advance his agenda as this legislative session comes to a close on June 17.
“I’m pretty confident that…in some respects he’ll be more successful than he otherwise might have been had Shelly and Dean remained in their positions,” Jacobs said. “That said, it’s still going to be an uphill battle for him because that’s the nature of it in a second term.”
Cuomo will get no relief from the powerful state teachers’ union.
The president of New York State United Teachers, Karen E. Magee, has denounced “Gov. Cuomo’s war on public education” not only for “his attacks on teachers” but what she dubbed in a recent letter to her membership his “Billionaires’ Agenda” that “would hold funding for SUNY, CUNY and our community colleges hostage to a competition reminiscent of The Hunger Games.”
Professor Benjamin acknowledged that the governor is facing tough demands from advocates who want him to increase spending, particularly on public education from preschool to the university level, but having a property tax cap on school districts has given Cuomo some leeway, although it’s set to expire soon.
“The pressures to spend are enormous, far more than he can respond to, but he has a degree of flexibility that he didn’t have at the outset of his first term,” said Benjamin. “He can square the circle here.”
As for Flanagan, a politician with nearly two decades of Albany experience, Benjamin said that making the tax cap permanent “could become a serious issue” for the new majority leader. “Flanagan has enormous potential, but he also has a very narrow majority and that’s a constraint,” he said.
Of the 62 seats, the Republicans currently have 32 members plus Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) who routinely votes with them. Flanagan’s deputy, Sen. Tom Libous (R-Binghamton), who has terminal cancer, is under federal indictment. Complicating the Democratic minority’s position in the senate is the Independent Democratic Conference, which has five members.
Statewide, the Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, with 5.7 million registered voters to 2.8 million. There are almost as many unaffiliated voters, 2.3 million, as registered Republicans. The Assembly, dominated by New York City Democrats, is not up for grabs.
Of course, the outlook ahead varies depending on who’s speaking.
“I did feel it was time for Dean to step down, if for no other reason than it would have been incredibly difficult to operate with that kind of cloud over you,” said Frank Tantone, Islip Town Republican chairman. “Nassau has always been a political power. With Flanagan now leading the delegation, maybe some of that power will shift. We’ll see… One of the good things Dean has done is make sure that Long Island got its fair share—or some would say more than its fair share—for its school districts, so I would hope that will stay as part of the agenda. It’s not a bad thing to have a local representative in a position of power.”
Jacobs, the Nassau Democratic chairman, said that Flanagan may have “a very tough job holding onto the senate in the next round. His majority is slim, and we’re going into a presidential year, which tends to favor the Democrats.”
With former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likely to be at the top of the ticket in 2016, Democratic turnout should be heavy, putting the Republicans’ hold on the state Senate at risk, and putting Flanagan’s political acumen to the test.
“That’s his big challenge politically: to be able to hold all the seats they took back in 2014,” said Levy. “If not, they may have to maintain the coalition with the independent Democrats. And that’s going to require a lot of real skillful deal making and personal politicking.”
But given Flanagan’s background, those skills may run in the family.