Photo: Mary Altaffer
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ALBANY – The poetry and promise of the campaign season are over, and the realities of governing New York are starting to set in.
When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators return to Albany in January for the start of a new legislative session, the dynamic in the Capitol will be radically different than the one that has prevailed since 2011. The state Senate, the last bastion of Republican power in state government for more than a decade, is now overwhelmingly in Democratic hands, creating a level of one-party rule in New York without recent precedent.
New state Senate
The last period of Democratic control of state government came a decade ago, during a two-year period marred by the financial crisis and chaos in the Senate, where a slim majority and corrupt members hijacked the legislative process.
State Sen. Neil Breslin, a Bethlehem Democrat, said the situation in the chamber is different now, his party has a comfortable majority and new leadership. Few of the current Democratic members even served in that era, and their 39-member conference is welcoming 15 new members this year.
Additionally, incoming Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat, has tried to quell fears of upstate residents – which were ginned up by Senate Republicans, and at least partially realized the last time Democrats controlled the chamber – that they would be an afterthought in the governing process.
Speaking Friday on WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom, she said, “There is no need to be concerned.”
Agenda for 2019
There is an expectation that liberal policies stymied by Senate Republicans will be given a chance to become a reality, but the timetable and appetite to deliver on some of the sweeping promises remains to be seen.
Low hanging fruit (election reforms, abortion protections, an overhaul of school testing and teacher evaluations, and gun control) will likely be acted on in the first 30 days of the new year. Items with a price tag (the DREAM Act) will probably be incorporated into the budget that is due at the end of March, and more complicated or controversial matters (marijuana legalization and a state takeover of health care) might not be addressed until June or even later.
“Nothing will be rushed,” said Breslin, who spent two decades in the minority. “I don’t think on day one we should pass 112 bills just to make ourselves feel good.”
Delivering on promises
The governor, for one, is skeptical about the commitment of Democratic state legislators for priorities they’ve championed while GOP control of the state Senate was a stumbling block.
For instance, when asked about the prospect of ethics reform, he said on WAMC’s The Capitol Connection on Thursday, “We’re going to find out. That is the $64,000 question.”
“When you know something is not going to happen, it’s easier to be supportive of it,” Cuomo added.
Since Election Day, though, Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie have only reaffirmed their plans to adopt a liberal agenda.
Regarding the implementation of good government reforms, Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, noted that Albany’s problems weren’t created overnight. “It’s going to take a few years to straighten it all out,” she said.
Krueger and Breslin both anticipated a more deliberative and transparent legislative process, in lieu of closed-door leaders’ meetings that produce Albany’s “Big Ugly” bills, which combine a smorgasbord of interests.
The progress Democratic legislators make on their campaign promises will be tracked by liberal grassroots activists who were instrumental in creating the new Senate majority, from unseating six of the Democrats who used to ally themselves with Senate Republicans to helping flip control of eight seats in the general election.
Mia Pearlman, of True Blue NY, said there is an expectation that their last two years of work will produce progressive legislation.
“In past cycles, the work of the grassroots was to get people elected and wait for them to do what they promised,” she said. “We will be heavily involved in the legislative process. We’re not going to have a passive relationship.”
This means a presence in the Capitol to remind their champions in the state Legislature that they’re behind them, and they’re watching.
Pearlman is optimistic that Stewart-Cousins and Heastie will deliver on their promises. “If it turns out that some Democrats … can’t get the job done … we’ll be happy to primary them in two years,” she said.
Balance of power
The new legislative dynamic also creates Cuomo’s “biggest challenge,” according to Bob Bellafiore, a veteran of Gov. George Pataki’s administration.
Like governors before him, Bellafiore said, Cuomo enjoyed having a legislative opposition to moderate the most extreme elements of his party. For instance, he regularly tucked a liberal laundry list into the budget and let most of the items die following the slightest resistance from the Senate.
“The governor finally has both houses with strong Democratic majorities, which for him is a blessing and a curse,” he said.
On issues where the governor might not be ready to go as far as Democratic state legislators, such as tax hikes or increased spending, it is unclear whether the Legislature will assert a stronger role in the process.
“Are the houses going to act like real partners in governing or will they do what the governor wants,” Bellafiore said. “Have the two houses developed muscles to flex, and will they flex them?”
Third terms have not been kind to recent governors, who ended their time in office with a listless administration. “Politicians are like bread,” said former AP reporter Marc Humbert. “They get moldy if you keep them around too long.”
The next four years won’t be without changes, though, as department heads have already begun to announce their departure and some of the governor’s closest advisers on the second floor could be moving on soon too.
Bellafiore said Cuomo has the possibility of avoiding the traditional arc of three-term governors, which usually ends with them becoming their own worst enemies. “The governor has a gift, because he has Donald Trump as his foil,” he said, anticipating that battles with the White House will keep the governor energized and politically sharp.
And if Cuomo continues to champion a progressive agenda with the same fervor as he did on the campaign trail, Humbert said it could be an indicator of his ambition to take on Trump in 2020.
David.Lombardo@timesunion.com – 518.454.5427 – @poozer87