Assembly Looks Safe for Democrats No Need to Give in to Pataki, Says Study

New York Democrats shouldn’t let fear of losing control of the state Assembly force them to yield to the Republican agenda of cutting public services to finance tax cuts for the rich, according to a recent study of “marginal” districts. The study, “Who is Really in the Margins,” done by Election Victories, a Manhattan political consultant, for the Albany-based Citizen Action of New York, focused on 22 Democratic-held Assembly districts, all targeted by the state Republican organization, where Governor George Pataki outpolled Democrat Mario Cuomo in 1994 or ran strongly against him.

It concluded that only three of those 22 incumbents are in serious danger of losing their seats. In the worst possible case, it said, Democrats might lose as many as 10 seats — not enough to endanger their 95-55 majority in the state Legislature’s lower house.

The report, Citizen Action said, “challenges the validity of the single biggest political calculation driving legislative politics in Albany: that a newly invigorated Republican party led by Governor George Pataki could take control of the State Assembly in 1996,” much as the national G.O.P. gained a majority in Congress in 1994. The group, which advocates balancing the state budget by eliminating Pataki’s tax cuts for upper-income residents, criticized state Democrats for abandoning liberal positions for fear of losing marginal suburban and upstate seats.

“Assembly Democrats have turned their backs on their core constituencies, poor and working-class New Yorkers, who have borne the brunt of tax-cut mania, and have missed an opportunity to energize that base with anti-corporate populism,” the report said. “Playing ‘marginal’ politics has not only been bad politics, it has created bad policy.”

The report found three Democratic Assemblymembers in serious danger: Naomi Matusow of Westchester County, who won her second term in 1994 when a Conservative Party candidate siphoned off 10 percent of the vote in the Republican-majority district; Steven Englebright, who faces a 3-2 Republican edge in his Suffolk County district; and Joseph Pillitere, who took only 51 percent of the vote despite a solid Democratic edge in his Niagara Falls-area district.

However, it also found two Republicans at similar risk: Joel Miller and John Guerin, both freshmen who eked out narrow victories in Hudson Valley districts that Pataki carried by 2-1.

In the worst possible scenario for the Democrats, the report said, they could also lose three rural upstate districts where the incumbent is “vulnerable to a strong challenge,” and three more, one in Suffolk County and two upstate, if the incumbent retired. Democrat David Koon, who picked up a Republican seat in Rochester in a special election in February, may also be vulnerable.

But the report said all that was unlikely to happen this year — and Democrats will also be running with President Clinton’s coattails instead of against Pataki’s. Many Democratic Assemblymembers on the “marginal” list, it noted, won over 60 percent of the vote even while Pataki was trouncing Cuomo in their districts.

“The polling data show that even among those who are truly marginal, opposing tax cuts for the wealthy and budget cuts in areas like education and health care actually makes pragmatic political sense as well as good policy,” the report declared. It cited an April 1995 poll commissioned by Local 1199, covering 13 of the “marginal” districts, in which more than two-thirds of the voters surveyed said they believed that Pataki’s tax cuts favored the rich. Large majorities also said that the Governor’s budget cut funds for education and health care too much, although most — especially upstate — approved of its welfare cuts. In Steven Englebright’s district, where the State University of New York at Stony Brook campus and hospital complex is one of the largest employers, voters opposed Pataki’s cuts in SUNY funding by 4-1 and the tuition increases his budget forced by 2-1.

“The report demonstrates that Democrats in New York can safely follow the same budget strategy employed by Democrats in Congress to oppose the Gingrich budget,” said Citizen Action’s Karen Scharff. “In Congress, Democrats won the public argument by opposing cuts in Medicare to fund tax cuts for the rich. The same argument applies in New York: We shouldn’t be cutting vital state services while giving more tax breaks to wealthy New Yorkers.”