ALBANY — With no power in state politics and long odds against regaining any soon, Republicans in the State Legislature are throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what will stick in a bid to keep Democrats from cementing their hold on New York politics.
They’re pitching ideas fanciful (separate New York into two states) and outdated (limit every county to one senator). They’re trying parliamentary maneuvers, with at least one succeeding. They’re focusing on tried-and-true topics (abortion, taxes, parole and opposing driver’s licenses for those in the country illegally). They’re invoking the loss of the would-be Amazon headquarters in Queens at every opportunity.
But they’re undertaking new things too, such as “Twitter school,” as some legislators called it, to encourage legislators to use social media effectively.
They’re even dining together.
Recently, Republicans from the Assembly and Senate convened for breakfast at the Fort Orange Club, a brick mansion one block from the State Capitol that has been a go-to place for fundraising, power meetings and political socializing for more than a century.
It may sound run of the mill. But it was the first time the two Republican factions in Albany got together for anything, many veteran legislators said, much less to talk about a shared agenda. Some even called it a “get to know you” session with the overwhelming majority of both conferences in attendance.
“I had never seen it happen before. But now we’re all in the same boat,” said one veteran Republican. “We’re trying to strategize on how we can together move forward.”
No plans were made, but the legislator said: “I’ll think you’ll see more unified efforts” over the next two years.
“It’s definitely the first time since 2000, since I’ve been here,” Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) said. The Assembly and Senate Republicans haven’t always worked in tandem despite agreeing on most issues, and some GOP legislators didn’t know some of their colleagues well, Kolb said.
“So John Flanagan and I thought it would be a good opportunity,” Kolb said, referring to his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport), who did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s a new reality for Republicans brought on by stinging defeats in the 2018 elections.
They lost every statewide contest and three congressional seats. But the biggest loss was the Senate, where they went from controlling 32 of the 63 seats to just 23. They actually gained two seats in the Assembly, but are outnumbered there 107-43.
The losses sparked calls for changes in leadership.
Flanagan survived a challenge within the Senate Republican conference. Meanwhile, Nick Langworthy of Erie County launched what proved to be a successful effort to oust Ed Cox as state Republican chairman.
At the State Capitol, Republicans are fighting to stay in the conversation. It’s a role that’s based on waiting for opportunities, analysts said.
“It’s like a football team that’s down a couple of touchdowns,” Bruce Gyory, an adjunct political science professor at the University at Albany and a former gubernatorial adviser, said.
“You need a turnover. But you don’t have it and you don’t know how you can get it,” Gyory said. “You angle for it. You position yourself for it. But there will be a lag time. … When you’re in the minority, you try a lot of different things and you have to wait for the consequences of the majority to kick in.”
Flanagan has been a frequent critic. He’s blamed the Democrats for Amazon’s decision to cancel plans for a second headquarters in Queens (“catastrophe”), a proposal to publicly finance political campaigns (“welfare for politicians”), parole releases for some high-profile, aging prisoners (“warped and tilted justice”) and an increase in state spending (“a very liberal, borderline radical agenda”).
“Since we’ve had one party rule, you don’t hear any discussion about economic development,” Flanagan told reporters earlier in the legislative session. “You don’t hear any discussion about small business. You don’t hear any discussion about taxes. You don’t hear any discussion about jobs except the ones they lost.”
“When you are in the minority, you have a role to play – and you play it ferociously,” Kolb said.
But the attacks don’t substitute for having a role in policymaking, an analyst said.
“It’s frustrating because you’re a bystander,” Gerald Benjamin, a longtime state politics observer and a dean at SUNY New Paltz. “You’re not going to have any impact on how New Yorkers are governed. All you can do is try to get ahead of the curve, develop some serious ideas and if they become law, say, ‘Hey, that was ours.’”
Some of the Republican efforts weren’t viewed seriously, such as the brief push for a bill to carve upstate into a wholly new state. Or another to divide the state into “three autonomous regions,” each with its own governor. Benjamin called these “crowd pleasers” that “do nothing.”
They’ve tried a slew of parliamentary maneuvers in both houses, such as “laying aside” bills for later debate, which effectively reduces the number of bills Democrats end up approving. They also try to attach “hostile amendments” to Democratic bills to force votes on abortion and other issues.
Such tactics usually are dismissed on procedural grounds. But Assembly Republicans actually succeeded with one in early April after an obscure committee meeting.
Assemb. Steve Hawley (R-Batavia) made a “motion to discharge” — that is, bring to the full Assembly for a vote — the “Gold Star Families” bill, which would expand college tuition assistance for family members of fallen military personnel. Democrats voted it down, noting the state already had programs covering some of the same ground.
But Hawley, fellow Republicans and bill supporters took to the internet, launched an online petition, sparked news stories and browbeat the Democrats to action. Sen. John Brooks (D-Seaford) took up sponsorship of the bill and said he’d try to advance it in the Senate. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced he’d act administratively to expand tuition grants to Gold Star families.
It marked a rare instance in Albany: A minority conference succeeding.
Said Kolb: “It was one of those issues the public grasped very easily.”