ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- The red leather seats of New York’s Senate were hardly cool from this year’s session when the next nasty fight for majority control of the chamber began.
Republicans with a 32-30 majority are protected by the new election district lines they drew. They face Democrats who hope to ride an Obama wave into the majority in what will be New York’s tightest and most important election fight this fall.
"It’s going to be brawling, blood and claw," said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. "It’s a death match."
Much at stake
Much is at stake for New Yorkers.
Republicans promise a far greater voice for upstate and suburban voters and their economic priorities. Democrats promise a progressive agenda that they say will again make New York a national leader while giving voice to Democrats who hold a nearly 2-to-1 enrollment advantage.
"I think people like checks and balances," Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos told The Associated Press.
"They don’t like to see one-party rule especially from one part of the state, namely New York City," said Skelos, a Long Island Republican. "And I think that was part of our coming back into the majority: That people saw that without checks and balances, it just didn’t function well on a statewide basis."
He was referring to power struggles, gridlock and a spike in spending and taxes during 2008-2010, when Democrats won a 32-30 majority after a half-century of Republican rule.
But even as Republicans point to accomplishments during the past two years, including a property tax cap, on-time budgets, and a cut in middle class taxes as part of a millionaire’s income tax increase, Senate Democrats say issues important to New Yorkers weren’t done.
"We cannot allow the state Senate to continue to shy away from what the residents of New York want," said Senate Democratic leader John Sampson of Brooklyn.
"The Republicans," said Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, "do an effective job of pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes. But at the end of the day, the lack of progress on issues of critical importance is going to come through."
They noted the Senate’s Republican majority blocked bills that would have increased the minimum wage; further protected women’s rights and the environment; changed campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money; and enacted independent redistricting rather than drawing districts to protect their power. (Democrats also failed to do that in 2009 when they were in the majority.)
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s strongest ally has been the Senate’s Republican majority, a disciplined bunch that can reliably muster the required 32 votes if a deal is struck.
It will be hard for a Democratic governor seen as a possible presidential candidate to openly campaign for or support Republicans. Even neutrality would hurt Democrats and boost Republicans who wouldn’t have to combat the highly popular governor.
Cuomo refused to discuss Senate politics while he needed the GOP to make deals. But after the session ended June 21, he flipped into campaign mode. A recent, ambiguous comment gave Democrats a chance to be optimistic.
Cuomo told WGDJ-AM that there’s little place for politicians in New York who serve "ultra conservatives." Skelos and Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous of Broome County bristled at that.
"I think he should be certainly happy with the way we partnered with him and the way that things have gotten done up here," Skelos said. "I don’t think he would want to go back to the chaos of the past."
Four prominent Democrats left the party conference last year, forming the Independent Democratic Conference and have sided most often with Cuomo’s proposals, which usually meant voting with Republicans. That could mean the traditional Democratic conference would need to win six or more seats -- rarely done in the past -- to have clear control of the majority.
Muzzio said Cuomo must balance the alliance he’s forged with Republicans with being a good Democrat.
"At some level he’s going to have to campaign for Democrats against Republicans," Muzzio said. "He doesn’t have to campaign to the point that he threatens the status quo, but he’s got to be a Democrat, certainly if he has 2016 presidential aspirations."