Skelos learned value of hard work early

State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), with his

State Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), with his son Adam, left, wife Gail and father Basil standing at his side, is sworn in as Senate majority leader in 2010. (Credit: Handout)

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ALBANY - Ask state Sen. Dean Skelos what forged his political career and he'll talk about the die-hard Republican schooling he received at his mother's knee and the life lessons learned in the 100-degree heat of his grandfather's bakery.

He'll tell you about a political journey that began in his hometown of Rockville Centre when he led a Youth for Goldwater squad as a 16-year-old during the 1964 presidential race, continued when he ran for 12th-grade class president (lost by 12 votes), and ascended to the local GOP leader's slot when he was 30.

And he'll mention his first campaign for state office, and a knock on a stranger's front door that tied together the work at the bakery, the importance of community ties, the value of shoe leather and the love of political competition.

"I'm walking door-to-door in Rockville Centre and I went to a house," Skelos said in an interview in his State Senate office in Albany, recalling his first run for the Assembly in 1980. "A very nice house, a very large house, and I knock on the door and the woman came to the door. And she said to me, 'You know I'm a Democrat,' and I say, 'I'd like you to consider' -- and she stops me and says, 'No, you don't understand, I'm voting for you.' "

The reason: During the Depression, when her family had virtually no money, Skelos' grandfather let her buy baked products then and pay later.

"She said to me, 'That's something I'll never forget,' " Skelos said, "and I'll always vote for you."

Some 31 years later, Skelos is at the high point of his career. After decades as a hardworking, some say highly partisan, legislator, he controls the State Senate and is New York's highest-ranking Republican, making him one of the "three men in a room" in Albany who control state government and the flow of money and legislation.

That puts him in a leadership position on issues of importance to Long Island, such as school aid and limits on property tax increases. And, thanks largely to the fiscally conservative goals of new Democrat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Skelos recently sealed a budget deal that slashed spending without raising taxes -- supporting the heart of his political philosophy of less government spending, no tax hikes and more reliance on the private sector.

When the final budget bill came up for a vote, the Senate chamber was almost silent and it was nearly midnight. Skelos, 63, rose from his chair, second seat from the middle aisle in the middle row, next to his floor leader, state Sen. Tom Libous (R-Binghamton). While some members sagged at their desks, Skelos practically beamed.

"This budget charts a new course," he said in a floor speech.

Colleagues recognized it as a crowning moment for Skelos, who is now in his 27th year in the Senate.

"His goal in life was being Senate majority leader," said Sen. John Bonacic (R-Middletown), a friend who has served in the chamber since 1999. "He's been a majority leader in training for a long time. It's something he's wanted for years and now his time has come."

 

Mom's interest in politics

Skelos got the political bug early from the woman who raised him. Helen Skelos, daughter of a Greek immigrant, was a steadfast Republican who worked on the presidential campaign of Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. Family lore has it that the first question she put to Skelos' father, Basil, when they met was: "Are you a Republican?"

(Skelos' birth mother died when he was 3. Basil later married Helen, whom Skelos considers his mother.)

"My mother loved politics and the idea of public service," Skelos said. "But there must be something inside me. Even in elementary school, I was running for class president and different class representative [positions] and I got involved in politics pretty much right out of college," he said. " . . . There was something about being able to accomplish things -- and, also, the competitiveness. I liked the competitiveness of politics."

He got involved early. In 1964, he showed his true red Republican colors by enthusiastically backing presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater, the conservative who would lose in a landslide to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Skelos tried to organize other youths for the Arizona Republican.

"There were probably three of us," he said, laughing. At South Side High, Skelos made a speech for Goldwater (it went over "so-so"). Later, he saw Goldwater speak at the Garden City Hotel.

"It was a very bad year for Republicans," Skelos said. "But a lot of things he said, in terms of things like a strong defense, would be very well-received today . . . In my heart, I knew he was right."

When he ran for Assembly in 1980, Skelos said his mother "was at my campaign headquarters every day, stuffing envelopes, making sure everything got out the door, giving me motherly advice. When I was elected . . . she was just extremely proud."

Growing up in Rockville Centre -- where he's lived his entire life save for four years at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., where he earned a history degree -- Skelos also earned a practical education by toiling at his grandfather's bakery, George's.

"I worked there in the summers when it was 100 degrees outside and I was back by the ovens where it was . . . 100 degrees," Skelos recalled. He worked days at the bakery while attending Fordham Law School at night.

The bakery closed in 1979 after 45 years in business; none of the grandchildren wanted to take it over. Skelos ran for -- and won -- an Assembly seat the next year.

None of his four siblings followed their older brother into elected legislative office. Peter became a judge and now serves in the Appellate Division, New York's second-highest court venue. Nicholas is a chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Penelope (Penny) is a housewife and mother, and Anastasia (Stacie) is a chemotherapy nurse.

 

Wins Senate seat on 2nd try

Skelos wasn't content being in the Democrat-dominated Assembly. After one term in office, he unsuccessfully challenged Democratic state Sen. Carol Berman in 1982, but won a rematch in 1984 and has won every two years since. His climb in the Senate featured key performances that were instrumental in propelling him to the majority leader's post, colleagues said.

Skelos helped generate support to elect the late GOP Sen. Ralph Marino as majority leader in 1989. Marino, of Muttontown, was the first Long Islander ever to hold the post. Then, in 1994, with then-Gov.-elect George Pataki and Sen. Alfonse D'Amato gunning for Marino to shake up the Senate, Skelos swung support to state Sen. Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), to seal Marino's ouster.

Skelos engineered the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts in 1992 and 2002. From the state GOP's perspective, it was a key political task, given Democrats' growing enrollment advantage in the state. Within the Senate, it also was a power broker's role, as rank-and-file legislators' fates can depend on the redistricting outcome.

Just as crucial, Skelos served as Bruno's deputy from 1994 to 2008, functioning as floor leader and helping to marshal votes. It's known as a "go to" position where other senators can bring their legislative and political issues. As a result, he also got to know what made other Republican senators tick. In closed-door Senate caucuses, Skelos would not sit next to Bruno at the long conference table but instead in a corner chair, looking out at the other pols.

"He was always a guy who studied body language," said a former Skelos associate who wished to remain anonymous. "That came over time. He took notes. He got to know what bothered other senators. He just studied the conference."

As a young senator with Republicans solidly in control, Skelos "was one of the most oppressive to the minority" Democrats, said former Gov. David A. Paterson, who was a senator from 1986 through 2006. "He used to get into it on the floor with the minority all the time. Dean didn't play well in the sand box."

Whereas some Republicans literally crossed the aisle to pull up a chair and talk with Democrats during breaks in the action, few could recall Skelos doing so. "It's not that he's mean. He just wanted to win. He didn't like to lose," one Republican said. "Politically, he is just very competitive."

But that started to change one night in the mid-1990s, Paterson said, when they were both serving as deputy leader for their conference. Skelos suggested they go to dinner with their staffs. There, Skelos made a speech about "we all have families, we all go home at night," Paterson said. "It was a wonderful night and that really changed things."

During his tenure as deputy, Skelos spearheaded the adoption of Megan's Law, which requires convicted sex offenders to permanently place their names on an online registry, the establishment of a Medicaid inspector general, and repeal of a tax on New York City commuters. And he waited.

"It's not easy being in the No. 2 spot for so many years," said D'Amato, the de facto leader of the GOP in the state for many years. Skelos jockeyed with upstate rivals for years to be Bruno's heir apparent. Asked what made Skelos tick and what made him noticeable, D'Amato said: "His mom and dad's work ethic -- that's something people in public office don't particularly have."

 

Takes over top Senate post

When Bruno resigned amid a federal investigation in 2008, Skelos took over. Rank-and-file senators said Bruno was a breath of fresh air in 1994, but by the end there was growing discord.

"Toward the end, it was more and more Joe's way, not the members' way," said state Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City). "There was growing disaffection. With Joe Bruno, if you got up [in conference meetings] and gave some opinion that didn't match his, he'd try to interject and refute your point. With Dean, I think he is listening."

D'Amato and others said that's another change colleagues have seen in Skelos. Early in his career, Skelos would argue a point before an adversary's sentence was finished or fire off a statement if he was criticized.

"Now, he's more restrained, much more restrained than a person of his power might be," D'Amato said.

Skelos' first run as majority leader lasted but a few months. Democrats won the Senate majority in fall 2008 -- but Republicans regained a 32-30 advantage in 2010, returning Skelos to the top spot.

But step back to 2009 for a moment. Paterson is governor and the Democrats have control of the Senate for the first time in decades. Two renegade Democrats temporarily switch sides to the GOP, throwing state government into chaos, then switch back. After it was all over, Skelos came to see Paterson.

"I thought he'd be angry and pedantic. But he was very gracious," Paterson said. "What I saw was a person who believed in government, who used to get involved in partisan fighting, evolve into a leader. Leadership is something he takes seriously -- some of the squabbles he used to get into, he's left behind."

Skelos, in his second tour as leader, has also become more hospitable to Democrats -- at least a certain faction. He's established ties with four breakaway lawmakers who call themselves the Independent Democratic Conference, giving them committee leadership posts and preferred seating in the chamber. In turn, some of the renegades occasionally have voted with Republicans when a GOP member was absent and Skelos needed a vote or two to pass a bill.

While Bruno near the end of his tenure traveled in a custom-fitted van with six leather captain's chairs, Skelos' state car is a Buick Lucerne.

"His big splurge is playing golf at the club in Hempstead where he's belonged for so many years," D'Amato said. "That's Deano . . . He is a man of simple tastes, of humility."

 

Politics on the golf course

Skelos golfs with colleagues to cement relationships, senators said. Some say it combines his two passions.

"With Dean, if it's not politics, it's golf," said one former insider, who said Skelos scores in high 80s, low 90s and that he doesn't play nearly as much as when he was deputy leader.

As a leader, Skelos is more politics than policy, those who know him say. "He relies on a handful of quiet leaders to develop policy," Bonacic said. "But he makes the call" on policy positions.

Skelos, in his second shot as leader, also has honed the GOP's talking points, focusing on taxes, jobs and functional government as a platform for 2012, senators said. They say he has a smaller set of advisers and seems more confident than before. "He's got a second chance, so he is really focused," said Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick).

So far, about four months into that second chance, Skelos and his allies are claiming success.

Chiefly at the urging of Cuomo, the new state budget enacted the first overall state spending cut in 15 years. And lawmakers met the budget deadline for only the third time in 28 years.

Cuomo, in a statement, said of Skelos: "So far he has been true to his word and reasonable, and in this business that's a big deal."

Skelos, still basking in the budget, said it's about sticking to his "core message."

"When you look at the message during the [2010] campaign: You can't raise taxes, you have to cut government spending, you have to empower the private sector," Skelos said, relaxing in his Senate office. "We delivered on that."

  

A LOOK AT DEAN SKELOS, A CRUCIAL LI VOICE IN STATE CAPITAL

AGE: 63

PARTY: Republican

POSITION: Majority leader of the State Senate

HOME: Rockville Centre

FAMILY: Married to Gail, a retired State Senate employee. One son, Adam, who works in title insurance. Eldest of five siblings; one, Peter, is a judge in the State Supreme Court Appellate Division, the state's midlevel appeals court.

EDUCATION: South Side High School, 1966; bachelor's degree in history, Washington College, 1970; law degree, Fordham University, 1975.

 

CAREER

1978: At age 30, became GOP leader for Rockville Centre

1980: Elected to the New York State Assembly.

1982: Unsuccessful bid for State Senate

1984: Elected to State Senate

1994-2008: Served as deputy majority leader

2008: Elected majority leader but lost the post after Democrats won the Senate in fall elections

January 2011: Elected Senate majority leader after GOP regained the chamber.

 

LEGISLATIVE HIGHLIGHTS

Megan's Law: Legislation that created a registry for convicted sex offenders and set up community notification procedures.

Redistricting Led Republican efforts in 1992 and 2002 to remap legislative and congressional districts, which watchdog groups criticized as gerrymandered to favor incumbents.

Other highlights Spearheaded efforts to eliminate the New York City commuter tax, establish a Medicaid inspector general and curb abuses of the state retirement system.

Compiled by Yancey Roy

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