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John Flanagan says goodnight

New York State Sen. John Flanagan at Farmingdale

New York State Sen. John Flanagan at Farmingdale State College in Farmingdale in 2016. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

When John Flanagan’s resignation from the State Senate and the role of minority leader became official at the end of Sunday, it marked practically the first time in five decades no member of that family has been a member of the State Legislature.

The exception was the weeks between the death of his father, Assemb. John Flanagan, on Sept. 27, 1986, of a heart attack at age 50, and the son’s election to the father’s seat six weeks later at age 25.

“If my father had died a week later, his name would still have been on the ballot and I could not have run,” Flanagan told The Point recently. Instead, the Huntington-raised lawyer, a Republican, served 16 years in the Assembly, entirely in the minority, followed by 17 years in the Senate, where the bulk of his service was in the majority.

“The greatest gift was serving with and for thousands of amazing people,” Flanagan said, “and I always wanted to be able to say I had the respect of the people I worked with, from members of the legislature to the cleaning people who cared for the building, and showed those people kindness and respect. I hope I achieved that.”

Before his time as leader, Flanagan’s main role was chairing the Senate Education Committee. In that role, he was a staunch advocate of tougher and more objective evaluations for teachers and a revamp of the state’s standards that included the abhorred Common Core curriculum. In the end, on almost all of these issues, Flanagan ended up on the losing side of victories by the state’s teachers unions. He was far more successful in fighting to get state aid to schools restored on Long Island, against the wishes of the city-Democrat-dominated Assembly, after the cuts of the Great Recession.

Flanagan, no bomb thrower, was certainly known for a level-headed and respectful approach. But a large part of what he’ll likely be remembered for is the GOP’s 2018 loss of the majority in the State Senate while he held the gavel, with an eventual 40-23 margin.

And assuming the Democrats hold the majority in 2020, they will control redistricting of the chamber following the ongoing census, giving the Democrats their first chance since World War II at redrawing lines to erase GOP gerrymandering advantages that kept the chamber red for decades in one of the nation’s bluest states.

“Certainly, losing the majority makes this retirement bittersweet,” said Flanagan. “I do take responsibility in the sense that I was the leader, but I also feel I recruited great candidates, and raised $18 million. The national political situation in 2018 and the changing demographics of the state of New York took much of what happened in that election out of our hands, but I am proud of how we fought.”

And what now?

Flanagan has taken a job with Northwell Health in governmental relations, and he says that while he imagines he’ll be working mostly on Long Island, he’s not averse to heading to Albany, though he can’t actively lobby for two years.

As for the Senate Republicans, Flanagan acknowledges they have a hard game ahead of them, particularly if Democrats control redistricting after a win in 2020, but he does believe they could retake the chamber someday.

“The pendulum swings,” Flanagan said, “and the caucus is in great hands with Rob (Ortt, of North Tonawanda) as the new leader. I think you’ll see the Democrats, if they rule as the only party in power, go too far and alienate too many voters. 

“I think you’re already starting to see that.”