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Unions add power to Democrats' bid to regain state Senate

The New York Senate Chamber at the Capitol

The New York Senate Chamber at the Capitol on June 20, 2014, in Albany. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

ALBANY - The Democratic plan to regain control of New York's Senate from Republicans was hatched at a Working Families Party convention in May where the headliners were New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and, by video, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

But the muscle to make it happen was in the union members standing behind de Blasio.

Some of the state's most powerful unions, such as SEIU Local 1199, a health care workers union, agreed to place campaign contributions -- they haven't said how much -- on a bet to win a Democratic Senate majority and end a half-century of Republican dominance of that chamber. Whether the wager pans out also will hinge on a half-dozen key races around the state this fall, including several on Long Island.

The goal is an all-Democratic State Legislature, which would seek to enact a progressive agenda, including more protection for late-term abortions, a higher minimum wage and college aid for immigrants illegally brought to the United States as children.

"It's a huge boon to us to have an undivided and strong effort by organized labor to have a Democratic majority in the State Senate," said Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens), who is quarterbacking the Democratic effort.

But Sen. Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton), who headed Republican Senate campaigns in the past, said, "You don't want to have anyone against you. Certainly SEIU Local 1199 is a force to be reckoned with, and I'd rather have them, but at the end of the day we will do what we need to be successful. We'll figure out a way to win without them."

The Democratic effort took a major step forward last week when the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of five Democrats who have been sharing control of the Senate in a coalition with Republicans -- announced that it would be returning to the mainline Democratic fold. That move, along with one conservative Democrat who now sits with Republicans but said he would join whoever has the majority, would give Democrats the 32 votes needed to control the chamber. Republicans have 29 seats. Two are vacant. All 63 seats are up for election in November.


Republicans optimistic

Republicans believe they can pick up enough seats, while holding on to the ones they have, to give them the majority. Top targets include the seats held by Sen. Ted O'Brien (D-Irondequoit), who is running against a longtime local TV news and sports anchor, Rich Funke; Sen. Terry Gipson (D-Rhinebeck), who is expected to be challenged by Dutchess County Legis. Sue Serino, and first-term Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk (D-Duanesburg), who is being challenged in a rematch by home builder and former Assemb. George Amedore. Tkacyzk won by 18 votes in 2012.

Democrats believe they can offset any Republican gains and add to their majority. Their targets include seats vacated by Sen. Charles Fuschillo (R-Merrick), who left for a private-sector job, and Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who last week won the GOP primary for the 1st Congressional District. They also target Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), who faces Democrat businessman Adam Haber; Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), who takes on attorney Marc Panepinto, and the seat to be vacated by Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson), who is leaving for another job.


Power in union unity

The Working Families Party deal brokered by de Blasio could deliver a lot of money to the cause of flipping control of the Senate. In the past, the unions have contributed up to $4 million in an election season. But union support also can come from hundreds of thousands of members to staff phone banks, ring doorbells with campaign brochures in hand and vote. The boost comes as Democrats have paid off a $3 million debt from the 2012 elections, so new donations will go to races.

The Working Families Party said the united labor front and the cash it brings have been missing in past efforts to regain control of the Senate.

"We have an opportunity now to really shape an agenda in New York for New Yorkers trying to make ends meet," said Karen Scharff, executive director of the Citizen Action of New York advocacy group and co-chairwoman of the Working Families Party.

But Republicans, who are led by Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), say their message of cutting taxes and reducing spending will attract enough money to counter donors lost to the Democrats.

"We're looking to pick up three to four seats, so things are looking good for us," said Sen. Catharine Young (R-Olean), who is leading the Senate Republican campaigns.

One unknown is whether Republicans can still count on a $1 million check from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, their biggest single contributor for more than a decade who has moved his focus to the global stage.

"Mayor Bloomberg has always been extremely supportive and a great friend," said Young. "He understands the needs for checks and balances, so we are hopeful he will continue to support our conference."

Democrats also claim an advantage in that Young -- although a veteran of nearly a decade in the Senate -- is a rookie in running the campaigns.

Libous, who raised money and directed spending in a way that marveled even Democrats in the past, isn't heading the Senate Republican campaign effort this year. He had forged some of the relationships with unions that now are committing to helping Democrats.

"I'm glad not to be on the opposite side of the table from him on the political side of things," Gianaris said.

But the fundraising gain may not be as big as Democrats hope.

"The reversal of some of the state's biggest donors certainly helps Senate Democrats, but they have a long way to go to make up their fundraising deficit," said Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group. He said that even if the unions -- principally SEIU Local 1199 -- had sent all their 2011-12 donations to the Democrats instead of Republicans, Democrats would have still been outspent by about $1 million by the prodigious Republican fundraising machine.

"It would have helped, but it's certainly not a sea change," Mahoney said.

Origins of the battle for control


The battle every two years for control of the state Senate in Albany is in part because of a thin margin between Republicans, who have long controlled the chamber, and Democrats.

Here's the current makeup:

29 Republicans

24 Democrats

5 members of the Independent Democratic Conference

2 Democratic senators who are not part of any conference because they face corruption investigations, but who still can vote in choosing a majority leader

1 conservative Democrat who is part of the Republican conference but said he would support whoever has the majority

2 vacant seats

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