Suffolk Democratic chairman Richard Schaffer took an unusual step for a party leader last week by going public praising a group of dissident Democratic state senators who continue to side with Senate Republicans to keep Long Island’s John Flanagan as Senate majority leader.
“The Independent Democratic Conference is a voice for all Democrats,” said Schaffer. “I . . . strongly support the IDC for doing what’s right for moving our state forward . . . Long Islanders and all New York State residents deserve a government that is working together.”
Schaffer said later he volunteered to speak out after talking to state Sen. Jeff Klein, the conference’s leader.
“Politics takes place during the campaign, but governing takes place the rest of the year and it’s important for us to get our fair share of resources,” Schaffer said of an area where Senate Democrats failed when last in power. And, he said, “Who wouldn’t want the Senate majority leader coming from their home county?”
Sources say Schaffer recently lunched with newly elected state Sen. John Brooks, a Republican who ran on the Democratic line in the 8th District, and encouraged him to join the conference. Brooks, who received $300,000 in campaign contributions from regular Democrats, demurred. He beat freshman GOP Sen. Michael Venditto after his father John Venditto, the former Oyster Bay supervisor, was indicted on federal corruption charges. John Venditto has pleaded not guilty.
Schaffer has long maintained an informal nonaggression pact with the Republican-controlled Senate. But until now, Schaffer has kept his ties to Senate Republicans largely sotto voce.
For years Schaffer put up only token, if any opposition to his hometown senator, the late Owen Johnson of Babylon, after Johnson resisted local GOP pressure and helped Babylon get special state legislation to authorize town bonds to resolve fiscal woes.
Schaffer also took umbrage when Senate Democrats took control in 2008 and tried to block him from even communicating with then-state Sen. Brian X. Foley, a Democrat, during the battle over the MTA payroll tax. Foley’s vote for the tax, which was unpopular on Long Island, cost him his seat.
“Schaffer is smart enough to know that geographic balance in government is just as important as political balance,” said Sen. Philip Boyle (R-Bay Shore). “Rich knows the Republican-IDC majority . . . are the only ones focused on protecting . . . our suburbs.”
Schaffer’s move also comes after County Executive Steve Bellone, with whom he has clashed, stubbed his toe politically last spring by giving $5,000 to Democrat Todd Kaminsky’s Senate campaign in the 9th District.
The donation, which didn’t endear him to the GOP Senate majority, came to light as Bellone was asking for a $75 million water surcharge. And Bellone’s 2017 budget seeks $60 million in borrowing — which needs state approval — to pay retiring police costs for unused vacation and sick pay.
Klein, of the Bronx, said he hoped Schaffer’s support might encourage others to join the Independent Democratic Conference because he “knows what it is like to represent a suburban region.”
State Sen. Michael Gianaris, deputy Senate minority leader and head of the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, declined to comment on Schaffer’s embrace of the dissidents or its political impact.
“We’re thrilled to have two new members from Long Island,” said Gianaris, of Queens. “And expect the number to grow in the coming years.”