How Hurricane Sandy Has Upended Politics As Usual in Albany

How Hurricane Sandy Has Upended Politics As Usual in Albany

November 16, 2012 at 3:39 pm

With the power in the State Senate hanging in the balance after last week’s election and the impact of Superstorm Sandy overshadowing the civic debate, the political calculus in Albany has shifted.

Members of the New York State Senate at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. AP/Hans Pennink

Where only a few weeks ago lobbyists and policy makers were debating the possibility of a special session of the State Legislature that would address campaign financing, the minimum wage and marijuana possession laws, they are now talking about how the government can respond with smarter policies to lessen the impact of future super storms.

“Rebuilding becomes the focus now,” said Russ Haven, legislative counsel at the New York Public Interest Research Group, in an interview this week.

He added that legislative pay raises that had long been rumored as a focus of a special session will be “a lot harder to do” now that Sandy has added to the state’s budget shortfall.

Haven and other political observers are still eyeing the outcome of key races to see whether they shift the State Senate to the Democratic Party. The Senate is currently split 33-29 in favor of the Republicans.

Even if the Democrats do eke out a majority, it could be rendered almost meaningless. The Independent Democratic Conference, a rogue group of four Democrats led by Bronx State Sen. Jeffrey Klein, is in a position to play the spoiler and could decide to align with the current majority of Republicans. Newly elected Brooklyn State Sen. Simcha Felder has said he will caucus with the Republicans. And, perhaps most importantly, the Democrats have long fallen out of favor with the state’s popular governor.

“The governor, given his popularity, institutional powers and demonstrated capacity for negotiating has the upper hand one way or another,” Haven said, adding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the IDC are also politically aligned. “The IDC is in tune with the governor’s agenda. They are fiscally conservative and support more liberal social issues.”

Former Gov. David Paterson wrote in The Times Union this Sunday: “Rising above all this political uncertainty is one simple fact: No matter what happens come January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will end up a winner either way.

If the Republicans return to power, the governor will still have an ally on his important economic agenda of job creation, low taxes and regulatory relief. If the Democrats win, Cuomo will be able to pass the social agenda that has been stymied by the Republicans: minimum wage, campaign finance reform and more intelligent marijuana possession laws.

Cuomo has tried to stay above the fray, instead focusing his political energy on the storm cleanup.

“The Assembly will pick a leader, and the Senate will pick a leader. And I have no intention of getting involved in either situation,” Cuomo said at a press conference last week, while underscoring that he thought Democrats learned a lesson the last time they were in control of the Senate. “I think they learned the hard way. The Democrats were in power. The Democrats then lost power because of the dysfunction and I think they learned that lesson the hard way.”

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