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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

At risk after Skelos arrest, GOP senators close ranks

New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, center,

New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, center, and his son Adam, right, arrive at FBI offices in Manhattan on Monday, May 4, 2015. Credit: AP

The Senate Republicans' choice of John Flanagan (R-East Northport) as majority leader over Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) might have followed a long fight -- if it had occurred back when New York's GOP held a stronger hand.

Once this succession might have spawned an all-out clash of egos. Or a struggle between Long Islanders and upstaters. Or a split between so-called true believers and so-called moderates.

Tensions do not vanish entirely. But nowadays, the current GOP conference has 33 of the Senate's 63 members, including a turncoat Democrat. Such a slim majority makes internal fights seem unaffordable, especially in an emergency.

Together, Senate Republicans fought for their very survival in the past four elections. In 2009, the GOP conference got a brief taste of being in the minority for the first time in a generation, and clearly hated it.

Through seven lean years at the helm, Flanagan's predecessor, Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), succeeded politically. He engineered a surprise procedural coup that threw Democrats off-kilter. He allied with certain Democrats to maintain power. His one-time rivalry with Sen. Tom Libous (R-Binghamton) ended.

Generally, Skelos kept his crew united.

Flanagan is taking over at the end of a legislative session when key bills hang in the balance. The vacuum ended only a week from the moment U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara prodded Skelos' abdication by filing criminal charges against him.

If Republicans want to keep power, they'll need all the unity they can get.

"The biggest challenge that Flanagan faces comes from Hillary Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket next year," a local Republican insider said.

The draw of Democrats in a presidential year could threaten such incumbents as Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn) and Sue Serino (R-Hyde Park), the operative said.

He added that one selling point for Flanagan over DeFrancisco was that he "does actively travel around the state to help and campaign for [GOP] candidates running for Senate. He's pretty reliable about that.

"Also, he's approachable and he listens. He gets it. DeFrancisco has a reputation of being a little more aloof."

With a successor now chosen, another question arises -- whether Skelos will seek re-election next year after 30 years in the Senate. His district, by the most recent figures, has 82,196 Republicans to 74,508 Democrats, and 49,074 registrants without party affiliation.

During a conversation picked up under federal surveillance, Skelos recently told his son and current co-defendant Adam Skelos that "these are dangerous times." Prosecutors say he was referring to corruption investigations.

The same warning applies to his party's status in the Senate.

For the time being, veteran leaders of both legislative houses remain in office, but sit on the sidelines while facing criminal charges. These times are not only dangerous for some, but weird.


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