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Ouster of Skelos, Silver traced to Albany's younger politicians

A statue stands in front of the New

A statue stands in front of the New York State Capitol building in Albany on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Credit: Bloomberg / Ron Antonelli

ALBANY -- On Jan. 22, when Sheldon Silver was charged with corruption, more than a dozen senior members of his Democratic majority rallied around him with "every confidence that the speaker is going to continue to fulfill his role with distinction."

On May 4, when Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was charged with corruption, more than a dozen senior members of his Republican majority rallied around, saying they "strongly believed" in him.

Within days, the stand by some of the most senior members of each chamber crumbled. Silver, 71, who had controlled the Assembly for 20 years, was forced to resign his leadership post Feb. 2 after he and his allies lost a fight to stay in power. Skelos, 67, held on for a full week after he was charged before he stepped down as leader.

Even veteran lawmakers agree that the stunning removal of two legislative leaders in the same session was led in part by an unprecedented move from the newer, often younger members of each chamber, where seniority has long ruled. In each case, freshmen and less-senior members, emboldened by their constituents' growing revulsion with Albany corruption, moved entrenched majorities.

"These are not normal times," said freshman Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). "It was very clear to some of us less senior people that what the public was feeling was a general disgust of what was going on in Albany. We felt that very acutely.

"And this was a seismic change," Kaminsky said. "You have to seize that."

'No allegiance'

One longtime Democratic Assembly member said the new class came into office angry. Early on, they asked for more resources and Silver gave them "just a pittance." That was a quick lesson in Silver's absolute power "and they had no allegiance."

"We felt strong-armed," said freshman Assemb. Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) "There was a need for fresh blood and energy and vigor."

Emboldened by voter outrage, "they wanted to be part of the decision-making," said Assemb. Felix Ortiz (D-Bronx), who has been in office for 21 years. "It gave them the opportunity to be part of the process."

Two days after Skelos was charged, freshman state Sen. Robert Ortt (R-North Tonawanda) broke the traditional discipline of the GOP conference to announce that he would support a resolution to oust Skelos, or make a formal motion himself.

Ortt, a former mayor of North Tonawanda, had been sworn into office just four months before.

"There were some folks, maybe at the senior end of the conference, who didn't like what I said or that I was out there asking Sen. Skelos to step aside," he said. "I hope they respected my position . . . I intend to be a strong voice."

Nine more Republicans, most of them new to office, soon called for Skelos to step down. That prompted release of a letter from 15 Republicans, including 10 with more than 20 years' experience, supporting Skelos.

Freshman Sen. George Amedore (R-Rotterdam) commended the senior leaders for not stifling the newcomers' views, but quickly added: "I wouldn't have let it happen anyway."

Some new lawmakers said this is, finally, a new dawn for Albany. State lawmakers won office in recent elections on promises to attack Albany's corruption and dysfunction. Toppling leaders also moves them closer to lucrative leadership posts, and they know their campaign promises will be used against them in 2017 if they waver.

New way to lead

The new leaders -- Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) -- have called for more inclusion within their chamber and more cooperation with their counterparts. Heastie has appointed some newer members to run subcommittees, regularly seeks their input, and convened a workshop to change rules and increase transparency to the public.

But many efforts to change Albany over the last decade -- during which more than 30 lawmakers were snared in corruption cases -- began and ended with promises.

"They ultimately moved up the food chain and became part of the ruling group," said Blair Horner, longtime legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. This time, "the new members are less numb to the political culture and to some extent are appalled by it. Whether or not they get numb over time, it's hard to say."

The newer members emphasize they aren't insurgents, but will work within their conferences. Having played a role in creating a path for new top leaders, they can avoid the retribution meted out against past mavericks.

The unity was clear in the Senate. Republicans sealed an upstate-downstate rift internally to protect their one-seat majority. They then voted 32-0 for Flanagan, 54, a moderate with 13 years in office. He defeated Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse), 68, a conservative with 23 years in office. Skelos has spent 30 years in the Senate.

Wait-and-see approach

Political scientist Doug Muzzio of Baruch College said there is a parallel between Albany and the nation after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. In each, new faces were elected, emboldened by strong public anger over corruption.

New members in Albany "also owe the leadership less and at least some of them if not all of them wanted to get into the body to do something as individuals, and that particular leadership didn't allow you to do that," Muzzio said.

"The personal loyalties and dependences haven't developed to the same degree" among newer members, said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at the SUNY New Paltz. "That's significant."

But he said more sway for newer members won't necessarily translate into landmark change. "I don't think the fundamental behavioral norms are changed," he said. "It's not a structural phenomena, it's an opportunistic phenomena."

Forty-seven Democrats joined the Assembly since 2010 -- 33 of them in the last two elections -- and are part of the 105-44 majority. Meanwhile, the Senate Republicans' narrow majority of 32 (plus one conservative Democrat) in the 63-seat house includes 13 Republicans who were first elected since 2010. Seven of them were elected last year.

Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), a 26-year veteran, said newer members "absolutely" played a big role in forcing Skelos to resign.

Not everyone feels this was a watershed moment.

"I want to give Sen. Flanagan a chance, but the people want dramatic change," said Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria).

The Assembly's Republican minority is also skeptical.

"It still took eight or nine days for the so-called reform caucus to act," said Assemb. James Tedisco (R-Scotia). "It's like, 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.'"

Assemb. Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn), in office 43 years, who lost a bid to become speaker, welcomes the new wave.

"I thought that the younger members would want to hear from the more senior members, but they -- to their credit -- came in with minds of their own to vote for younger, more energetic leadership, and I think the Senate has followed suit," Lentol said. "I think it's a good thing."


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