Unusual coalition to lead State Senate

New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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ALBANY -- Republicans formed a partnership with breakaway Democrats Tuesday to maintain control of the state Senate, an audacious move that will apparently keep Democrats from seizing power even though they may have won a majority of seats on Election Day.

Under the arrangement, 30 Republicans and six Democrats will form a Majority Senate Coalition to run the chamber come Jan. 1. Five of the Democrats announced their move Tuesday; one had previously said he'd join with Republicans.

Current Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) will share the title of majority leader with Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) in an unorthodox arrangement that will see them alternate the title every two weeks.

Their deal would leave the other Senate Democrats with, at most, 27 members, and would render one upstate Senate race, which has yet to be finalized, moot as far as Senate control.

Skelos and Klein issued a statement calling it a "historic bipartisan partnership" and a "bold new chapter" for the state.

"Senator Klein has proven to be a thoughtful and effective leader, and I look forward to partnering with him to move this state forward," Skelos said.

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The move is not wholly unprecedented, though the power-sharing arrangement would be. In 2009, Skelos lured two Democrats to his GOP caucus to take control of the chamber, but the partnership quickly unraveled.

This time, Skelos and Klein said they will share control of what bills reach the Senate floor each day of the session, as well as committee assignments, and the power to make appointments to state and local boards. They said they would also share negotiations over the state budget.

It will take some delicate balancing to maintain the coalition in the upcoming legislative session, insiders said. For instance, Klein and Skelos said the coalition would be fiscally conservative -- a nod to Republicans -- but would advance "progressive policy issues."

Klein stopped short of promising specific legislation but said he was "very confident" the coalition would act on legislation to raise the state's minimum wage, which Skelos and Republicans have opposed, change "stop and frisk" criminal laws and address campaign-finance laws. He acknowledged it will have to find a balance between Democrat and Republican priorities, but added: "This [agreement] isn't empowering any one side. That's the beauty of coalition government."

The new structure will preserve clout for Long Island's Senate delegation -- all nine, including Skelos, are Republicans and they would have had little power under a Democrat-run chamber.

Taking note, Kevin Law, chief executive of the Long Island Association, hailed the new coalition and said he was "extremely pleased" that Skelos will stay in power.

Josh Vlasto, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, didn't comment directly, but said: "The governor will withhold judgment until he sees how the Senate functions and acts on critical issues facing the state."

Cuomo has praised Skelos in the past and has recently triggered criticism from Democrats for not fighting for the party in legislative elections.

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Members who will benefit said they were "taking politics out of policymaking."

"We will remake the New York State Senate with a bold new model, where partnership is valued over partisanship, and a focus on important issues will be at the forefront," said Sen. David Valesky (D-Oneida), one of five dissident Democrats who have formed the Independent Democratic Conference. The sixth Democrat to join Skelos is Simcha Felder, who made his decision less than a week after winning in Brooklyn.

The Democrats he left behind said the arrangement was more of an old-fashioned power grab than a high-minded coalition. "This is not a coalition but a coup against all New Yorkers who voted for Democratic control of the Senate and a progressive state government," said Mike Murphy, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader John Sampson (D-Brooklyn).The partnership was made necessary by the Republicans' failure to maintain a majority of seats on Election Day. The Senate is the one bastion of state government controlled by Republicans.

Alternately, the announcement was a culmination of stumbles for Democrats, who found themselves leading in 33 of the 63 Senate contests after Election Day.

After Felder said he'd join the GOP conference, the Independent Democratic Conference, led by Klein, resisted calls for Democratic unity, indicating a deal with Republicans was near. Then, Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) disclosed he would become the first African-American to join Klein's conference, a move some insiders saw as possibly blunting criticism about the new coalition.

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Finally, a recount in a too-close-to-call race for a Catskills-Capital Region district ground to a near halt, with Republican attorneys going to court to try to disqualify hundreds of ballots that could toss the race to their opponents -- effectively giving more time for the coalition to jell.

Once seen as the key, the outcome of the disputed contest now won't matter in regard to Senate control.

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