By Rebecca Henely
Democrats suffered a blow in their attempt to secure the state Senate Tuesday when Sen.-elect Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) announced that he would be caucusing with the Republicans.
Felder said in a statement that he had made the decision after meeting with senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and discussing the issues that concern his constituents.
“I have enormous respect for the Senators from both parties, but I must choose to caucus with those Senators who will best serve the communities I represent,” Felder said.
Mike Murphy, spokesman for the Senate Democrats, said in a statement that the state’s electorate want a Democratic majority senate according to their votes.
“We are confident that when the Senate convenes in January, there will be a Democratic Majority and we look forward to working with Gov. Cuomo to achieve the progressive agenda he has laid out,” Murphy said.
The Democrats have seemingly emerged victorious in five races across the state will determine the outcome of the makeup of the Senate for the next two years. In Queens, Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) kept his seat against a strong challenge from City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park). State Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Mamaroneck) beat Republican Bob Cohen for retiring Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer’s (D-Mamaroneck) seat. Democrat Ted O’Brien also defeated Assemblyman Sean Hanna (R-Mendon) for retiring Sen. James Alesi’s (R-Perinton) position.
Democrat Terry Gipson also seemed likely to unseat Sen. Stephen Saland (R-Poughkeepsie) and Democrat Cecilia Tkaczyk appeared to win over Assemblyman George Amedore (R-Rotterdam) in a bid for a new 63rd District seat drawn around Albany, but the margins were so small that absentee ballots were still being counted.
Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), chairman of the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee, said he felt sure the Democrats had won the upper house. He said the majority would give Democrats opportunities to pass legislation to increase minimum wage, institute campaign finance reform, strengthen gun control laws and protect women’s rights.
“Now we have an opportunity as the majority party to show the people what we can do,” Gianaris said.
But Michael Krasner, political science professor at Queens College, said the road to cohesiveness may be rocky for the Democrats. In addition to Felder’s defection, the four-member Independent Democratic Conference, led by Sen. Jeffrey Klein (D-Bronx), remains separate.
“Obviously, the question, given their history and the suspect quality of at least some of the leadership, is whether they can hold that majority together,” said Krasner.
The split among the Senate Democrats recalls the Four Amigos, a group of renegade Democrats who broke ranks to caucus with the Republicans in 2009 and stymied the state government. Sen. Ruben Diaz (D-Bronx) remains in office, although the others — Hiram Monserrate of East Elmhurst, Pedro Espada of the Bronx, and Carl Kruger of Brooklyn — later resigned or were booted from office. The three former legislators were convicted of unrelated criminal charges.
Doug Forand, of the political consulting firm Red Horse Strategies, which runs campaigns for Democrats, said he believed it would be in the best interest of the IDC and Felder to form an alliance with the Democrats at large since not doing so would hurt them with their constituents who voted for them as Democrats.
“There’s too much at stake here,” Forand said. “Eventually they’re going to have to sell that back in their district.”
Krasner said much would depend on Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Krasner said Cuomo has a lot more power, credibility and backing than his predecessor, Gov. David Paterson, which could help him if he wants to keep the Democrats together.
“If he steps into this situation and applies some pressure, the chances of the Democrats holding the majority together are much greater,” he said. “If he steps out, I think their chances decline sharply.”
At a news conference Friday, Cuomo said the power structure of the state Senate would ultimately be up to the voters.
“I’ll work with whoever wins,” he said.
Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.