Long Island Upsets Usher In State Senate Firsts

State Sen. Kevin Thomas, at podium, speaks at a news conference after Election Day. L to R are James Gaughran, Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs, state Sen. John Brooks (D-Massapequa) and Anna Kaplan. (Long Island Press photo)

When Democrats surfed a blue wave to wash Republicans from New York State Senate control for the first time a decade — and about a century before that — the sea change brought some unprecedented developments.

New York State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) will be the first woman to lead a state legislative conference when she takes the gavel from Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport), who will lead the chamber’s GOP minority come January. Also, among four stunning upsets on Long Island, Nassau County voters elected New York’s first Indian-American state senator and first Iranian-American state lawmaker while Suffolk County voters elected their first female state senator.

“This is years in the making,” says Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs, crediting increased voter turnout to “the political environment, the anger, the upset over Donald Trump and what’s going on in Washington.”

The state Senate power change came as Democrats also flipped the U.S. House of Representatives by the biggest midterm election margin in 44 years, although LI’s five congressional representatives were all re-elected.

Twenty-nine-year-incumbent state Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) was unseated by Democratic challenger Kevin Thomas, an Indian-American attorney, in the Sixth Senate District. Democratic Town of North Hempstead Councilwoman Anna Kaplan, a Jewish refugee from Iran, ousted freshman state Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Flower Hill) in the Seventh Senate District. And in a rematch of a razor-thin 2016 race, Democratic Suffolk County Water Authority Chairman James Gaughran unseated 23-year incumbent state Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) in the Fifth Senate District, which straddles the county line.

To the east, Suffolk Legis. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) beat state Assemb. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue) in the race to replace retired state Sen. Tom Croci (R-Bohemia) in the Third Senate District.

All nine LI state Senate seats were solidly Republican not long ago. They were dubbed The Long Island Nine. Now, the GOP holds just three of those seats. Jacobs dubbed the new Democratic group “The Long Island Six.”

It’s the first time in recent memory that more than two Democrats were among the nine state Senators representing the Island. The Republican-led state Senate has long been the lone check on Democratic power in state government. For the past nine years, senators from LI have led the Senate. Disgraced ex-state Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), recently re-sentenced for a repeat federal corruption conviction he’s appealing for a second time, preceded Flanagan as senate leader.

Flanagan had warned that if the Democrats were successful in taking over, they would raise taxes, worsening the already high cost of living in New York State. Democrats insist they learned their lesson from their passage of the unpopular MTA Payroll Tax that ended their short tenure in control 10 years ago.

“Last thing we want a year or two years from now is for voters to have buyers’ remorse,” Jacobs says.

Despite the warning, Flanagan was complimentary of Stewart-Cousins as she prepared to take his job, calling her a “class and and truly an extraordinary person.”

“It is my sincere hope that she and I can work together to ease the burden on hardworking taxpayers, partner with job seekers and job creators to grow our economy, ensure every region of the state gets it fair share and adopt bold reforms,” Flanagan said in a statement.

Hot-button issues likely to be debated in next year’s legislative session include proposals to legalize recreational marijuana, create single-payer health care, and codify abortion rights — especially given Democratic fears that Trump’s recent appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court could help conservatives overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Change is coming to New York,” says Gaughran.

As for the state Assembly, which remains solidly in a Democratic majority, the blue wave also swept away that chamber’s third-most powerful leader when Democrat Taylor Raynor, a community activist, unseated Deputy Assembly Speaker Earlene Hooper (D-Hempstead), a 30-year incumbent.

The rest of LI’s 22-member Assembly delegation remained effectively unchanged despite two upsets. Republicans retained two seats being vacated by GOP lawmakers. And while Democrat Judy Griffin unseated eight-year state Assemb. Brian Curran (R-Lynbrook, Republican Mike LiPetri unseated state Assemb. Christine Pellegrino (D-West Islip), leaving the local party breakdown unchanged.

The state legislature reconvenes for the 2019 session on Jan. 9.