Democrat Kaminsky Wins Skelos Senate Seat

Tenants scored a significant electoral victory on April 19, when Democratic Assemblymember Todd Kaminsky of Long Beach beat Republican trial lawyer Chris McGrath in the special election to fill former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’s seat. Skelos, a Republican who had represented the district on Nassau County’s South Shore since 1985, was convicted of corruption in December and sentenced to five years in prison on May 12.  

Kaminsky won by 886 votes. Both sides pumped huge resources into the race, because they understood that its outcome would influence this fall’s fight for control of the Senate. Kaminsky’s victory technically gives Democrats a 32-31 majority, but the GOP remains in control due to its alliance with a group of renegade Democrats.  

Psychologically, his win gives the Democrats a great deal of momentum going into the Nov. 8 general election. Democratic turnout tends to be much higher in presidential-election years. In 2012, when President Barack Obama ran for his second term, Democrats won a majority in the Senate, only to be thwarted by party turncoats. In 2014, when a million fewer voters turned out, they lost three marginal seats, in the Hudson Valley and Rochester areas.

With the state’s rent-regulation laws coming up for renewal in 2019, the results will be crucial for tenants. As long as the Republicans retain control of the Senate, they will be able to block any significant strengthening of the laws, and the odds of Democrats taking control in the 2018 off-year election are slim.

Kaminsky has pledged to support repealing vacancy deregulation. There are pockets of rent-stabilized apartments in the district, primarily in Long Beach, Lynbrook, and Rockville Centre. But after 19 years of vacancy deregulation, it has lost probably half the stabilized units that existed in 1997. 

Tenants played a significant role in the race. Tenants PAC recruited dozens of tenant volunteers from Nassau County and New York City to phone-bank, knock on doors, and get voters out on Election Day for Kaminsky. The group also raised enough funds from tenants to contribute $10,500 to the Kaminsky campaign.  

While Governor Andrew Cuomo endorsed Kaminsky, he refused to campaign for him, although he did find the time to run all over the state campaigning for Hillary Clinton. It is no secret that Cuomo does not want a Democratic-controlled state Senate. President Obama did a robocall for Kaminsky, as did the candidate’s great uncle, comedian Mel Brooks (born Kaminsky).  

One thing is clear: Despite the millions of dollars spent on TV ads and mail, direct contact with voters made a big difference. The grunt work of door-knocking, phone banking, and handing out palm cards outside polling places made a tangible impact. 

In the November election, Tenants PAC will concentrate on trying to pick up several seats in Long Island and the Hudson Valley. (There are no competitive Senate races in New York City, where only two seats are held by Republicans, and neither of them is vulnerable.) The group will be recruiting volunteers to travel to Nassau County, Kingston, and Poughkeepsie, and soliciting contributions from people who can’t take the time or are not physically able to go.

 

Michael McKee is treasurer of Tenants Political Action Committee and a board member of Met Council on Housing.