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Analysts: State Senate Democrats must tend to suburban issues

They said members will have to avoid repeating the infighting and New York City-centric focus that created problems about 10 years ago, the last time the party controlled the chamber.

On Wednesday, Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs discussed what his party's big Election Day win in the State Senate means for Democrats and the state.  (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

ALBANY — Senate Democrats won the chamber’s majority in Tuesday’s elections in a campaign filled with promises of pursuing a more progressive agenda, but analysts said the new majority also will have to protect its newfound strength on Long Island and in other more moderate suburbs.

State Senate Democrats have long been driven by their liberal New York City base to focus on issues that have been blocked by years of Republican majority rule. Those include strengthening abortion rights, legalizing recreational use of marijuana, creating a universal health care system, further controlling guns, allowing early voting, public funding of campaigns, curbing charter schools and enacting a DREAM Act for immigrants.

But the big issues in the suburbs include reducing property taxes, increasing school aid and making schools safer, and Democrats will need to address them, analysts said.

"It's a balance act," political consultant Bruce Gyory said. "They have to be able to hold those seats so they can build a foundation of political strength for their marginal members.”

On Tuesday, Democrats flipped at least seven of the chamber's seats statewide, including four longtime Republican districts on Long Island and two more in upstate suburbs. Two more races — one in Brooklyn that could unseat veteran Republican Martin Golden and another held by Republican Susan Serino in Dutchess County — remained too close to call Wednesday. Democrats led in both races.

“The old ways of doing things are over,” said Bill Lipton, director of the liberal Working Families Party, which stoked much of the Democratic energy. “Now, the WFP and the fired-up grassroots base can stand shoulder to shoulder with a WFP and Democratic Senate majority in Albany to pass the kind of bold policies we need to make.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, however, has led an overall centrist and fiscally conservative path over his two terms, which he may want to exploit in a potential run for president in 2020.

“Cuomo will try to respond to the left Democrats’ agenda with symbolic actions, [but] he will be the sole guardian of New York’s fiscal probity,” said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz.

The last time Democrats won control of the State Senate was in 2008, the first time since 1965. That was a two-year legislative session marked by chaotic infighting, New York City-centric legislation, gridlock, big increases in spending and a massive payroll tax on suburbanites to fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

In the following election, in 2010, Republicans made a net gain of two seats and regained the majority.

“They didn’t listen,” Gyory said of the 2008-10 Democratic majority, few of whom remain in office. But the new Democratic majority will have to listen to suburban members more than it did a decade ago, he said.

“I am a suburban legislator,” said Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers on Wednesday. “I am very proud that New Yorkers have elected many great suburban legislators to take their place in the Senate Democratic Majority.”

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who will be the most senior majority member of the Long Island coalition, said Democrats will find a middle ground.

“For too long, common-sense legislation that Long Islanders support such as gun-safety measures, voting and ethics reforms and environmentally friendly bills have been bottled up,” Kaminsky said. “A Democratic Senate will pass these important initiatives while ensuring that funding is there for the schools and commuter rail system that Long Islanders rely on.”

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