GOP Takeover of State Senate Bodes Ill for Tenants

It wasn’t even close. The Republicans won a narrow but clear majority in the New York State Senate in the November 4 election. This will give the New York City real-estate industry an edge next year, when the state rent and coop protection laws must be renewed before they expire on June 15.

The GOP took 32 of the Senate’s 63 seats, the bare minimum needed to pass or defeat a bill. They will likely have a 33rd vote from renegade Brooklyn Democrat Simcha Felder, who has caucused with the GOP the last two years and is expected to do so again.

It is not yet clear whether Republican leader Dean Skelos of Nassau County will continue his power-sharing agreement with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference led by Jeffrey Klein (Bronx-Westchester). This alliance made it possible for the GOP to control the Senate for the last two years despite being a numerical minority.

Skelos may calculate that he does not need to share power with Klein, especially as the Republicans are more disciplined about doing the leader’s bidding than the more fractious Democrats. On the other hand, he has several members who are quite elderly, and his deputy, Tom Libous of Binghamton, is facing federal felony charges and says he has terminal cancer. One possibility is that instead of replicating the GOP-IDC power-sharing deal, where both he and Klein had to agree for a bill to come to the floor for a vote, Skelos might try to win their support by giving Klein and his four acolytes committee chairmanships and other perks. 

Three pro-tenant freshman senators from upstate districts—Terry Gipson, Cecilia Tkaczyk, and Ted O’Brien—lost by significant margins to very conservative Republicans. Justin Wagner, a pro–tenant Democrat running for the lower Hudson Valley seat vacated by Republican Greg Ball, lost to an extreme right-winger. The Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) poured millions of dollars into defeating them.

One pro-tenant incumbent, George Latimer of Westchester County, survived a right-wing challenge, and pro-tenant Democrat Marc Panepinto won a four-way race in Buffalo.

Net loss for tenants: two votes. When you need 32 out of 63 votes to pass anything, two votes are significant.


So what happened?

A lot of ink has been used since November 4 explaining why the Democrats did so badly. One factor everyone seems to agree on is that low voter turnout hurt them. 

Republican voters, who tend to be older and richer, turn out more in off-year elections, when many Democrats who vote in presidential years stay home. That tendency was more extreme in this year’s election: Statewide turnout was the lowest since the state Board of Elections began keeping precise records in 1970. Registered Democrats in New York outnumber Republicans by a 3-2 margin, but Andrew Cuomo was re-elected over GOP candidate Rob Astorino with one million fewer votes than he garnered in 2010. 

In the 2008 Obama wave, the Dems captured the state Senate for the first time in 40 years, winning a one-vote majority. The GOP reclaimed it in 2010, also by one vote. In 2012, despite Gov. Cuomo’s allowing Skelos to draw hyper-gerrymandered district lines, the Democrats won 33 seats to the GOP’s 30, but Jeff Klein’s deal with Skelos—which Cuomo masterminded behind closed doors—gave the GOP effective control.

Some observers blame Cuomo for depressing turnout by running a lackluster campaign. They argue that voters would have paid more attention and been more engaged if he had hit the grass roots more frequently, pressing the flesh in unscripted settings, instead of relying on saturating the airwaves with TV commercials, flooding mailboxes with unconvincing literature, and staging only highly controlled public events. He refused to debate Zephyr Teachout, his opponent in the Democratic primary, and did not debate Astorino one-on-one. 

Others blame Cuomo for failing to keep his promise to help the Democrats capture a Senate majority. Whether his campaigning for Democratic candidates would have helped is debatable, as dislike for the governor is widespread. Candidates in all parts of the state reported receiving negative feedback about Cuomo when they went door to door. “I stopped mentioning the governor. In my district he has no coattails at all,” one Democratic legislator said.

But Cuomo certainly could have given some of his $45 million war chest to the Democratic State Senate Committee. The state Democratic Party claims that he transferred $1 million to its account to pay for mailers supporting Senate candidates. If he had given $10 million, as Bill Samuels of EffectiveNY urged, it could have made a difference.

Moreover, if Cuomo really had wanted a Democratic Senate, he could have told his friends at REBNY, and his billionaire hedge-fund buddies who prop up the charter-school movement, to close their checkbooks. REBNY spent more than $1.9 million and the charter-school one-percenters spent $4.2 million against the Dems. For all we know, the governor encouraged them: It is common knowledge that he prefers a Republican-controlled Senate, and that he agreed to support Democratic control only in order to win the Working Families Party line.

Labor unions, led by the teachers, spent heavily in support of the Dems and mobilized impressive get-out-the-vote efforts. But it was not enough to overcome the weak turnout. 


Don’t blame me

Cuomo himself has blamed everyone but himself, pointing to the Republican sweep nationwide, voter anger at President Obama, and the dismal economy. Certainly these were factors.

But there is one overarching reason why it is fair to blame Andrew Cuomo for the loss of a Democratic-controlled state Senate: his 2012 sellout on redistricting. He campaigned for governor in 2010 on an explicit promise to end partisan redistricting, and to insist that a nonpartisan commission draw the districts based on the 2010 Census. Once he took office, he hammered this point again and again, promising to veto any new lines that were drawn for partisan purposes.

Apparently Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) did not believe him, because they went ahead with their normal plan, funding the legislative task force on redistricting and drawing up their own lines. They were right. After 15 months of repeating his veto threat, Cuomo agreed to give the legislative leaders a free hand. In return he got things he wanted, particularly cuts to state workers’ pensions. 

The result was the worst gerrymandering ever, with the Assembly Democrats drawing lines to make it impossible for the Republicans to win more seats, and the Senate Republicans jiggering lines in the most outrageous ways possible. They used gross population imbalances to rob New York City of at least two seats. To help Martin Golden, one of the city’s two Republican incumbents, they excised the public-housing projects of Coney Island and Bensonhurst from his southwest Brooklyn district, connecting them to IDC Democrat Diane Savino’s Staten Island district by the uninhabited strip of shoreline outside the Belt Parkway. 

Despite all this, the GOP lost their majority in 2012, and thus had to cut the deal with Klein to maintain their power.

If Andrew Cuomo had kept his promise and forced the legislature to establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission, by vetoing their partisan plans, we would probably be looking at a state Senate with 40 to 43 Democratic members and 20 to 23 Republicans. Counting to 32 would not be such an obsession for so many.

Tenants and other constituencies are going to pay a price for Cuomo’s treachery. In next month’s issue of Tenant/Inquilino, we will discuss some legislative strategies tenants can use to avoid disaster.