ALBANY - When Dean Skelos took over as State Senate majority leader in January 2011, the chamber had been in disarray for more than two years.
But after a period that saw an ethics investigation snare former Republican Senate leader Joseph L. Bruno and a brief but tumultuous period of Democratic leadership, the Senate under Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) has settled down.
Analysts give most of the credit to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's strong leadership, driving on-time state budgets and smoother operations at the Capitol. But they also said Skelos can bask in some of that glory. He has received kudos for getting the Republican conference to work with the Democratic governor -- which could help Republicans maintain their narrow majority in the Senate in this fall's elections.
'Everybody in place'
"Dean Skelos has worked with his conference to keep everybody in place. They appear to be very unified, very directed," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant. "They will have the Andrew Cuomo record to run on -- it's quite ironic."
Their argument: the GOP held a 32-30 advantage in 2011; now it's 33-29, thanks to an upset in a special election in Brooklyn earlier this year. They worked with Cuomo to score key policy wins, such as the new property-tax cap and a partial rollback of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority payroll tax, which will help incumbents who were once thought vulnerable, such as Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola).
"I think a lot of that is attributable to Dean and his relationship with the governor," said Sen. George Maziarz (R-Newfane), who has sparred with Skelos in the past. "He's had no problem keeping unity [among Republicans]. There's been no heavy-handedness."
But a top Democrat said the Republican narrative "is a pleasant spin that doesn't conform to reality."
The GOP has merely followed Cuomo's lead on major issues, said Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. But it also has blocked key issues such as redistricting reform, environmental legislation and a minimum-wage hike.
"There are a whole host of issues that the public wants to see enacted that the Republicans are blocking," Gianaris said. "Issues that the Democrats would enact rapidly if we win the majority."He said he respects Skelos but, "This isn't about personalities. It's about the substance of business in the State Senate."
Working with a moderate
Cuomo called for Medicaid and education spending cuts his first year, 2011, as well as the tax cap. This year, he kept spending flat.
"Skelos wasn't in the position of having to joust with a real liberal. So it was easier for him to come out looking like things were managed well," Stonecash said. He added that "it didn't take a lot to improve" upon 2009-10, in terms of a smoother-running government, and that Skelos "came across as a pragmatic guy," and wasn't "cocky" and "biting" like Bruno.
Skelos agreed that Cuomo's fiscal conservatism and focus on settling down state government made it easier for him. But he said he and other legislators share the credit with Cuomo.
"I think there's a joint record out there," he said. "It had to be done in a bipartisan fashion."
Skelos served as majority leader for a few months in 2010 after Bruno resigned and before Democrats took over. When he returned to power in 2011, he said he didn't have to stress unity with rank-and-file Republicans after seeing a fractured Democratic Party fall into disarray.
"We knew we were not going to go in that direction," said Skelos, 64, now in his 28th year in the Senate.
Going into the fall, Democrats have two big advantages: a 2-1 enrollment advantage statewide and a presidential election, which typically spurs a big Democratic turnout. Democrats also are planning on being more aggressive than Republicans in Senate campaigns, targeting far more incumbents for possible ouster.
"I think [Skelos] has done exactly what he needed to do," Stonecash said, in terms of positioning the party to retain the Senate. "I just don't know whether it will work."
Skelos predicts the fall elections will put the GOP solidly in control. He said not only will it defend all the seats it now controls, but will win open seats in Westchester County and the Capital Region, and will defeat Sen. Joe Addabbo (D-Ozone Park).
"We're going to pick up several seats," Skelos said. "I'm very optimistic we're going to come back with 35 or 36 seats."