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John Flanagan's journey to NY senate majority leader marked by unforeseen turns

Newly elected State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan

Newly elected State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan speaks during a December 2013 news conference. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

ALBANY -- It might seem like a straight line, but state Sen. John Flanagan's career path to the top levels of New York politics was spurred by some abrupt, life-changing turns.

The East Northport resident planned to practice law, until his father, a well-respected state assemblyman, died in 1986 at age 50. That thrust him into politics at age 25.

He thought he was poised to become the Assembly minority leader in 2002 but fell short by one vote. But that failure allowed him to run for Senate just months later when an incumbent retired.

He was mentioned as a statewide Republican candidate as far back as 2005, was mentioned as Suffolk County executive candidate a few times, and once applied to be president of Suffolk County Community College.

Had any of those worked out, Flanagan, 54, wouldn't have been in the position he found himself last Monday: winning a close, internal Republican vote to take over as State Senate majority leader after Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was pressured to step down from the leadership post in the wake of federal corruption charges.

By narrowly beating a Syracuse rival, Flanagan became New York's top Republican officeholder and one of three men who control the state budget and the flow of legislation in Albany.

"You don't always plan for a day like this," Flanagan said during his first address to the Senate as leader. "You certainly don't expect it given certain circumstances."

His rise marks a passing of the torch from Skelos to Flanagan, colleagues said, not unlike when Flanagan followed his father to the Assembly. Republican leadership shifts to a younger generation, but it remains in the hands of someone colleagues called an "institution guy," who knows well the workings of state politics and policy because he's spent his entire adult life in this realm.

"He understands the institution and he values the institution," said Michael Balboni, a longtime Flanagan friend and a former state senator from Nassau County. "He's articulate. He's able to figure out the lay of the land quickly and he just might have the perfect temperament for the job."

Allies called him "humble but ambitious," telegenic (clean cut, dark hair, reddish eyebrows), a student of details, a vigorous debater, a listener and a guy who never misses his daily workout.

"If you want to find Flanagan, go to the gym," said one Republican who asked to remain anonymous, referring to the workout room on the fourth floor of the Legislative Office Building across the street from the State Capitol.

Some fast Flanagan facts: He participated in football, basketball and track at Harborfields High School, where he was voted Most Likely to Succeed. He earned a bachelor's degree from the College of William & Mary and a law degree from Touro College. His favorite band is the Doobie Brothers; favorite movie: "Raiders of the Lost Ark." He loves going to the beach.

Earned income as lawyer

Flanagan, as a senator, has earned outside income as a general practice lawyer with the firm Forchelli, Curto, Deegan, Schwartz, Mineo & Terrana in Uniondale. Flanagan made $100,000 to $150,000 a year from the law firm, according to his ethics filings. But he said he resigned from the firm last week.

He also was the director of ASJ Consulting LLC, according to statements he filed with the state ethics commission. Flanagan stated in his 2012 and 2013 filings that the company was no longer active. ASJ "engaged in general real estate activities," had "no clients with business before the state and is currently being dissolved," his spokesman Scott Reif said.

He toiled 16 years in the Assembly, where Republicans are badly outnumbered and have little power. He lost a secret-ballot vote, 27-26, to a Rochester-area Republican in the race for minority leader in 2002, but successfully ran for State Senate later that year when former Sen. James Lack retired.

He made a mark leading the Senate Elections Committee as the state phased in new voting laws and voting machines. But he has been more visible over the past five years as the head of the Education Committee while the state implemented the Common Core academic standards, tying them to teacher evaluations.

At times, he's tried to position the Republican-led Senate between the labor-friendly Assembly and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has clashed repeatedly with the teachers union. Some union members, who believe the Senate has talked a good game about opposing Cuomo but then capitulated, have picketed Flanagan's office as well as other Republicans.

"The protests stem from the fact people who know the most . . . feel they have been ignored," said Richard Haase, a middle school instructor and president of the Half Hollow Hills Teachers' Association. The union wants to reduce the reliance on standardized tests and slow down Common Core implementation.

Haase said Flanagan has "always been a strong advocate for our schools" but added, "the last couple of years have been particularly challenging."

Flanagan understands complicated policy and funding issues surrounding schools, said Viri Pettersen, an elementary school instructor and head of the Rockville Centre Teachers' Association, though she added: "We have had our stresses and strains with him" over Common Core. She's optimistic that Flanagan, now as leader, "is realizing what's at stake for our kids."

Flanagan has been a steady producer of laws, though not as prolific as other Senate Republicans. (Democrats, as the minority, have little power to get laws passed.)

He had 28 bills passed by both houses in the combined 2011-12 legislative session, ranking him 24th in the Senate. He had another 15 in 2013, moving him up in the pack.

Flanagan's successful legislation included a measure to better inform women about breast density and cancer risks, expand the pet "lemon law" and allow students with respiratory ailments to bring inhalers to school functions. A measure he sponsored to ban Salvia divinorum, a hallucinogen, didn't pass, but was enacted, through regulations, by the Cuomo administration.

The Conservative Party likes Flanagan, having endorsed him in every campaign. Environmentalists, not so much. On its annual scorecard, Environmental Advocates of New York regularly ranked him near the bottom of Long Island legislators, though higher than some upstate Republicans.

Flanagan sparred regularly with Democrats on the Senate floor but kept things professional, said Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), who added she had a "great deal of respect" for him.

She said Flanagan made a point of walking over to her office on his first day as leader to discuss "rules of engagement," among other things. She expects "not a lot of ambiguity and not a lot of games" under the new Senate boss.

'Always on some short list'

Though his elevation to the top of the Senate was sudden, Flanagan has been seen as a rising Republican star for some time.

"He was always on some short list: county executive, congressman, governor," said John McArdle, former Senate Republican press secretary who now works as a consultant. (Others noted the same but gently criticized Flanagan for "never pulling the trigger" on running for a new office.)

McArdle called Flanagan a "team player" and a "well-spoken advocate for the Republican Party." He and others noted that Flanagan frequently helped younger and, even, older Republicans campaign through the years.

But now, they said he will be thrust into the role of chief fundraiser -- something Skelos excelled at, but Flanagan, running in a relatively safe election district, hasn't had to do.

Flanagan has promised to travel the state -- where Republicans are outnumbered more than 2-1 -- to burnish the GOP's reputation and "dispel the game of upstate versus downstate."

On his first day as leader, Flanagan didn't move into Skelos' office. Instead, he set up temporary shop at a long conference table inside the office of the Senate secretary, adjacent to the chamber. He talked glowingly of his father ("I'm convinced he could've been governor.") and his unpredicted arc.

"Look, I was 25. I was engaged. I was going to law school. Then, you know, in the blink of an eye," he said, snapping his fingers. "You're 54 and you're here. Life takes its turns."

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