Republican state senators gathered in a closed-door three-hour meeting to choose a new Senate majority leader Monday afternoon. Long Island, it seems, came out a winner.
John Flanagan of East Northport, who was first elected to public office at 25 to replace his father in the Assembly, now holds the top spot in the State Senate. Having served in the legislature for more than half his life, Flanagan, 54, is now at the top of the heap.
During his years in the legislature, Flanagan has been a moderate conservative and consensus builder, neither divisive nor a flamethrower. He's a good listener. In his acceptance speech Monday, he promised to continue the Senate's traditional role of "checks and balances" on state government, which means counterbalancing the more liberal Assembly. That's all to the good.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gets most of the credit for five on-time state budgets, the property tax cap, tax rebates and the rest of the agenda he's managed to pass, but that was part of a partnership in which he played the Senate and Assembly against each other. Flanagan must have a strong voice in those conversations. And like his predecessor, Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre, he must be willing to let issues he personally opposes, such as same-sex marriage, come to the floor so the state can have honest votes on critical, controversial issues.
Flanagan's ascension came about because Skelos was charged by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara last week with extortion, soliciting bribes and conspiracy, as was his son, Adam Skelos. Flanagan, without irony, complimented Skelos Monday, saying the former leader "was all about his family." Skelos allegedly used the power of his office to force an environmental company, AbTech Industries, and a major real estate developer, Glenwood Management, to hire and pay Adam Skelos. In return, AbTech got help winning a $12-million contract with Nassau County and Glenwood got continued support of major tax-break legislation.
Like Skelos, Flanagan is a lawyer. He earned $100,000 to $150,000 in 2013, according to his ethics disclosure form. Flanagan opposed a proposed ban on outside income for legislators, a stance we think is a mistake. However, last week he quit Forchelli, Curto, Deegan, Schwartz, Mineo & Terrana, the law firm where he worked mostly on land use and planning. That's smart.
Flanagan isn't going to be naturally inclined to blow up the Albany "business as usual" model, but once he gets his feet on the ground, we hope he'll start working to end that corrosive culture. And he likely had to make a lot of old-school deals to get the support of a few senators. Repaying that support shouldn't cripple his ability to be a strong, reform-minded leader. His successor as chair of the Senate Education Committee is likely to be from upstate, but Flanagan can still use his new perch to protect our beloved and vaunted educational climate.
As for Long Island, it's the best possible outcome. In an interview with the editorial board last year he said he wanted the state and New York City to do well, "but not at the expense of Long Island." So expect Flanagan to fight hard for our schools and roads and economic development, like Skelos. He also needs to fight to create a transparent and ethical culture in Albany, which Skelos never did.