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Long IslandPolitics

State Senate seniority gone, but Dems say Long Island's clout isn't

A photo of the 1994 all-Republican Long Island

A photo of the 1994 all-Republican Long Island delegation to the State Senate -- known as "The Long Island Nine" -- from left: Dean Skelos, Kemp Hannon, Kenneth LaValle, James Lack, Ralph Marino, Caesar Trunzo, Norman Levy, Michael Tully and Owen Johnson. Credit: Newsday File

ALBANY — The "Long Island Nine" is gone, and all the State Senate seniority that went with it.

But Democrats vow Long Island's clout won't be diminished.

The “Long Island Nine” was the moniker for the all-Republican bloc of nine senators representing Nassau and Suffolk counties for years. It often was said “they could stop anything” in regard to legislation and the state budget. As the largest bloc in the Senate, it also was the force behind an Islander — first Sen. Dean Skelos, then Sen. John Flanagan — holding the post of majority leader, the No. 1 position in the chamber, for the last eight years.

The bloc crumbled by two seats in 2016. And last November, Democrats rode a “blue wave” of voter support to not only seize four more Island seats but also wrest firm control of the Senate from Republicans for the first time in decades.

Even though no Islander in the new Democratic majority has more than 2½ years of experience in office, Democrats said Nassau and Suffolk counties’ political importance as “swing” districts ensure they will be not neglected as the 2019 legislative session begins.

“We’re not going to play second fiddle to anyone, but at the same time, we’re also not going to step on anyone’s interests,” Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford), a relative veteran in the Democratic delegation with two years’ experience, said after a ceremonial swearing-in on the Senate floor. “I think we’re going to be a very strong group.”

But the seniority loss is noticeable. Along with decades of experience, Long Islanders no longer lead top-tier committees such as Health and Education. A Long Islander also no longer holds the top Senate post.

New Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said the loss of seniority doesn’t correspond to a loss of influence.

“Absolutely not,” she told Newsday, noting that if the Senate went by strict seniority, she wouldn’t be the leader. “The six great representatives from Long Island will have substantial influence.”

Some insiders said Stewart-Cousins underscored the importance of the Long Island and Westchester County newcomers when, in her Senate opening address Wednesday, she surprisingly called for making permanent the state’s 2 percent property tax cap. Leaders from high-tax suburban counties had been calling for that, but were unsure a Democrat-led Senate would support the idea.

“I wanted to make it a very strong statement that I am well aware of the property-tax burden,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I made it a point to be out there” on the issue.

Observers noted that four of the eight Senate seats Democrats flipped on Election Day were on the Island. That automatically guarantees influence.

“I think they know most seats the Democrats won are considered marginal seats and could be lost if they don’t perform,” said Marc Herbst, CEO of the Long Island Contractors Association, which lobbies in Albany. “So I think Senate leadership is very aware they have to produce for Long Island and Westchester and they’re not going to let [the newcomers] flounder.”

“They’re going to go out of their way to make sure suburban senators are protected,” Desmond Ryan, a longtime lobbyist from the Association for a Better Long Island, said of the Democratic conference. “The delegation is losing seniority but not clout.”

A Republican official, who requested anonymity, said the real test for the new Democrats will be on how well they fare in delivering school, transportation and other infrastructure aid for the Island.

The six Island Democrats weren’t tapped to lead the most influential committees, such as Finance, Education, Transportation or Health. But all of them were assigned some type of leadership position. Among them, Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) was named to lead the environmental panel; Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hempstead), commerce; and Sen. James Gaughran (D-Huntington), local government.

All being so new to Albany puts the delegation members on “equal footing,” Gaughran, 62, said, boosting camaraderie.

“There’s a real sense of warmth between all of us and we’re all in the same situation,” he said. “I think we’re going to stick together solidly.”

“We will stick together as a delegation, as we six make it happen,” added Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood).

The Island’s Senate Democrats range in age from 36 (Sen. Kevin Thomas) to 69 (Brooks). Kaminsky, 40, has the longest tenure — at 2½ years. Kaplan, 53, and Martinez, 40, are two of the record 20 women in the 63-seat chamber in 2019.

Among the Long Island Republicans ousted were Carl Marcellino, 76, who had been a senator since 1995 and head of the Education Committee; and Kemp Hannon, 73, a senator since 1987 and the longtime chief of the Health Committee.

Flanagan, 57, (R-East Northport) was re-elected but saw his title flip from majority to minority leader. Incumbent Sens. Kenneth LaValle, 76, (R-Port Jefferson) and Phil Boyle, 57, (R-Bay Shore) also lost key committee posts when party control switched.

Senate Republicans didn’t immediately comment on the reconfigured Long Island delegation.

During the campaign last fall, Republicans' pitch to voters was a switch in Senate control would put state government in total control of the Democrats — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo cruised to re-election and the state Assembly remains overwhelmingly Democrat. And the last time that happened, in 2009-10, Long Island lost school aid and saw the imposition of an unpopular payroll tax to help the state recover from the Great Recession.

Democrats swore that scene won’t be repeated because just eight Senate Democrats remain from that time and that their conference is much more geographically diverse.

“The big story that we’re going to cave to New York City — that’s not going to happen,” Brooks said. “You’re going to see a very fair statewide approach. It’s a new day.”

An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect age for Sen. James Gaughran (D-Huntington).

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