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Leading Democratic state Senator says party should unite

A leading Democratic Senator says wayward Democrats should get in line with the others in their party, and form a majority to run the Senate when the new session starts in January. 

Despite being severely underfunded compared to their Republican opponents, Democrats have so far won 31 Senate seats to the GOP’s 30. Two more Senate races are still being tallied, with absentee ballots counted. The Democratic candidate is slightly ahead in one race, and the Republican is narrowly ahead in the other.

Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens ran the Democrats’ campaign efforts. “It’s what the voters said loud and clear, our candidates got 58 percent of the votes statewide,” Gianaris sad. “It’s hard to argue we didn’t win when we achieved that much of a mandate.”

If Gianaris sounds more like he’s making a case for a Democratic majority than basking in victory, that’s because there are a number of political obstacles facing him and most of the other Senate Democrats who would like to regain control of the Senate in January. 

Four of the Democrats reelected on November 6 are members of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference. Led by Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, they formed in early 2011. The IDC has had a rocky relationship with the rest of the Democrats, and has often sided with the current Republican majority on key legislation.  

In addition, newly elected Brooklyn Democratic Senator Simcha Felder has announced he will sit with the Republicans, giving the GOP conference the numerical majority for now, while the two other races are still undecided. And former Senate Democratic Leader Malcolm Smith has also hinted he too may jump ship and side with the Republicans. Smith has expressed interest in running as the GOP candidate for mayor of New York City next year. 

Gianaris has some advice for all of those Democrats. He says they should “heed the message that the people they represent delivered.” He says numerous polls before the election showed that the electorate favored a Democratic-run Senate. 

He accuses the GOP of meddling, blaming Republican senators for the 2009 Senate coup, in which two Democratic senators, Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate, defected to the GOP side. When Monserrate changed his mind and returned to the Democrats, a month long stand-off resulted.  

“It's no surprise to me that the Senate Republicans who brought us the coup attempt last time, who created the dysfunction that everyone knows about so well, are at it again in this round,” Gianaris said. “They're trying to transact with some misguided Democrats and trying to create as much chaos as they can to roll back the will of the voters. It's unfortunate.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans said “Senator Gianaris couldn't be more wrong.” Spokesman Scott Reif says, “It was the Senate Republicans, working with Governor Cuomo, who ended the chaos and the dysfunction Democrats brought to Albany during their two disastrous years in the majority.”

Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, has met with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and Gianaris says there have also been conversations between the Democratic Conference and the Independent Democrats. He would not completely rule out a scenario in which Klein is given a high leadership post with the Senate Democrats, but also say he’s not “going to be laying down markers publicly through the press.”   

“We’ll wait until we sit down with the entire conference,” says Gianaris, who says he hopes that Democratic conference includes Klein and his three IDC colleagues

In the lone interview Klein has given since the elections, he told the Buffalo News that he believes his group will be a “permanent third conference” in the Senate. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been busy with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy since before the elections. The governor has commented only briefly on the outcome of the Senate races. Cuomo, while saying he has no intention of getting involved in the fight for leadership of the Senate, described how he views the current struggle for power. 

“It’s more of a coalition, because there are three groups instead just two,” said Cuomo. “They come to an arrangement among themselves, and whoever gets two out of three ends up winning.”

A permanently split Senate might actually help Cuomo pass his agenda. In the first two years of his term, his priority items have included fiscally conservative measures favored by Republicans, as well as more liberal items like same sex marriage, which was approved mostly by Democratic senators, with the help of just four GOP votes.

Cuomo has said he would like to see the minimum wage raised in the future and wants to ease some laws against possession of small amounts of marijuana. He would need Democratic votes for those items. But the governor has said the damage caused by the storms has already doubled the state’s budget deficit, and he may need Republicans to help him make spending cuts.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.