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Editorial: Newsday endorses Long Island candidates for New York State Senate

Members of the State Senate work in the

Members of the State Senate work in the Senate Chamber as the legislative session winds down at the Capitol in Albany. (June 20, 2012) Credit: AP

The Republicans fighting feverishly to maintain their majority in the New York State Senate are pretty much campaigning as soul mates of Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, stopping just short of wearing lapel photo buttons of the hugely successful leader. The incumbents say that's because Cuomo is driving a fiscally conversative agenda that matches theirs. Democratic challengers say the GOP is shrewdly tying its fortunes to the popular governor.

In this past legislative session, one of the most productive in decades, the Republicans-Cuomo combination did force the entrenched Democrat-controlled Assembly to swallow some bitter pills: a 2 percent property tax cap, a new teacher evaluation system, trims to the pension benefits of new employees and partial repeal of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority payroll tax.

In return, Cuomo got Senate Republicans to retreat from one of their hard-line positions and raise the state's top income tax bracket by 29 percent for three years. And under pressure from Cuomo, the Senate agreed to allow a vote on same-sex marriage, passing the Marriage Equality Act with four GOP supporters.

Clearly, a strong governor dealing with opposing parties in control of the legislative chambers took some of the dysfunction out of Albany these past two years. It was a stunning, confidence-inspiring turnaround, especially after the chaotic 2009-10 years, when the Democrats controlled the Senate, the GOP staged a coup, and only comedians benefited.

Does Cuomo want the same split majorities for another two years? Probably. But even if the Republicans do lose a seat or two, as many as four moderate Democrats are expected to form a coalition that would caucus with the Republicans. That's why this year the editorial board makes its choices -- particularly on the one open seat in the 4th District -- based entirely on the individuals and without considering party control, which has been so crucial in recent years.

The truth is, it's Cuomo's show. As long as the ratings hold up and it remains a big hit, the rest of these characters will follow the script, regardless of party.


East End and much of Brookhaven Town

Democratic challenger Bridget M. Fleming, 52, says it's time to break through the "boys club" that is Long Island's all-male Republican contingent in the State Senate. And while more talented women are needed in Albany, the Southampton Town Board member is bucking an institution, incumbent Kenneth LaValle of Port Jefferson, first elected in 1976.

Fleming has noble causes: to seek fairer distribution of school aid, to use her experience as a Manhattan prosecutor to help bring integrity to Albany, and to advocate for fair pay for women and affordable health care.

However, in 36 years in Albany, LaValle, 73, has earned clout that would be unwise for voters to abandon. As head of the Senate Higher Education Committee, he brought a rational system of tuition hikes for state universities and increased aid for community colleges. For Stony Brook University, his efforts helped allocate funds for a medical research building and a children's hospital, renovation of an arena, and a marine science center. LaValle also was lead sponsor of a law requiring regular audits of the Long Island Power Authority. In a new term, LaValle's influence is needed to wean Port Jefferson from reliance on tax revenue from its power plant, to facilitate Southampton Hospital's new alliance with Stony Brook's medical center, and to help settle a dispute over tuition for local students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

Newsday endorses LaValle.


Town of Smithtown, parts of Town of Huntington and northwest Town of Brookhaven

Republican Sen. John Flanagan has been about as outspoken on the tough decisions that need to be made in the State Legislature as anybody in Albany over the past few years. That included chiding Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at times, a sport for which even most Republicans seem to have lost their thirst lately.

His Democratic opponent, Errol Toulon, suspended his campaign in September when he accepted a position as Suffolk County assistant deputy county executive. So Flanagan, 51, of East Northport, finds himself without competition. With 10 years in the Senate and 16 in the Assembly, he's achieved seniority and now chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Flanagan has been on the right side of hot-button issues for years but hasn't always gotten support. He introduced a bill last term that would have ended "last in, first out" for teachers and got nowhere. He's been vocal about ending or reforming the Triborough Amendment, which allows public employees to get raises even when they don't have contracts, and gotten nowhere.

He wants to take a hard look at special education funding, the process by which poor teachers are terminated, and a host of mandates from the state that make school districts difficult to run and finance. These are all good ideas, and he should keep pressing them.

Newsday endorses Flanagan.


Parts of Town of Islip and southwest Town of Brookhaven

Republican incumbent Lee Zeldin has the air of a spirited Mr. Smith-goes-to-Albany to fight government waste and bureaucracy. He went to the Senate in 2010 after voters unseated an incumbent, primarily for passing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority payroll tax.

So one of Zeldin's first moves was to sponsor a bill to repeal that tax. With heavy support from the governor, he was able to get a partial repeal for small businesses. Zeldin, 32, of Shirley, says his first term was also an education on how daunting it can be to tame entrenched systems like Medicaid. A lawyer and Army reservist, Zeldin won funds for veterans suffering from postwar disorders, for local schools, and for a second railroad track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma. He has fought for the interests of small fishing boats and anglers.

Democratic nominee Francis Genco, 59, of East Islip, began work with the Suffolk Board of Elections in March after serving as executive assistant to then-Islip Town Supervisor Phil Nolan. He also served several years on the East Islip School Board. Genco's perspective on local government and education would prove valuable, but Zeldin got off to a fine start and deserves to return to Albany.

For a second term, we would challenge Zeldin to pair his growing expertise with his zeal for government efficiency and low taxes.

Newsday endorses Zeldin.


Town of Babylon eastern portion and most of Town of Islip

This is the marquee State Senate race on Long Island, pitting a veteran of the Assembly against a veteran of the Suffolk County Legislature for the only Senate seat on the Island without an incumbent.

The vacancy arose because Sen. Owen Johnson (R-West Babylon) chose not to run again. The Suffolk Democratic Party chairman, Richard Schaffer, regularly declined to run a real candidate against Johnson, who helped the Town of Babylon to obtain desperately needed deficit financing when Schaffer was supervisor, in the 1990s.

Well before Johnson made his decision known, Legis. Ricardo Montano (D-Brentwood) had decided to run against him, whether Schaffer liked it or not. To his credit, Montano collected enough signatures to get on the ballot. When Johnson bowed out of the race, Montano, 62, was the only Democratic candidate.

Johnson's exit also provided an opportunity for Assemb. Philip Boyle (R-Bay Shore) to run for a seat in a chamber where his party is in the majority, after years of toiling in the Assembly minority. Boyle, 51, has been through the mill of lopsided redistricting. He lost his seat as a result of the redistricting that followed the 2000 census, then won a seat in a special election in 2006. He has been a solid, sensibly conservative legislator, who knows how to work with his Democratic colleagues to get bills passed: He voted for legislation imposing a 2 percent property tax cap, but he argues that the work of cutting taxes won't be done until the state stops imposing unfunded mandates on school districts. Montano's position on that suite of tax issues is essentially the same.

On other issues, from a state version of the federal Dream Act to allow the innocent children of undocumented immigrants to get an education to fair pay for women, their positions are not all that far apart.

Montano has the endorsement of New York State United Teachers, but he says the union did not ask him to push back against the developing teacher evaluation system. Unlike Boyle, who supports charter schools, Montano is skeptical about them as an alternative -- even though a charter school is under discussion for troubled Wyandanch. Montano feels that charters cherry-pick students and drain funding from public schools. That is pretty much NYSUT's position. So Montano will have to find alternate ways to help improve the school district.

What's appealing about Montano is his high level of independence, his intelligence, his long resume in civil rights jobs at the federal and county level, plus service with the state attorney general. He knows the needs of this newly reapportioned district -- especially its most economically challenged areas.

Whether the Republicans retain control of the State Senate or Democrats take over, Montano seems likely to be a reliable burr in the saddle of both parties and someone who could deliver for his district.

Newsday endorses Montano.


Glen Cove, much of Town of Oyster Bay and Huntington Town

Sen. Carl Marcellino, a Syosset Republican, is practically an institution, having held the seat since 1995. He faces challenger David B. Wright, 50, of Locust Valley, a former high school guidance counselor and college adviser at LIU Post, who now works for the Nassau County Board of Elections.

Wright didn't respond to an invitation for an endorsement interview, citing glitches early on in his campaign.

Since his last race, Marcellino, 69, has stepped down as the longtime chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee. Now he leads the Committee on Investigations and Government Operations. The change seems to have given him renewed energy.

At the committee's suggestion, the State Legislature merged the insurance and banking departments into the Department of Financial Services. The committee is also considering stricter boating laws, following the July Fourth capsizing in Oyster Bay that killed three children. One good idea is creating a hull identification number for each boat, similar to the VIN in cars and trucks. The number could provide leads if, for example, a boat were found empty.

Marcellino also passed a bill to give the state Liquor Authority commissioner more executive power, speeding decisions on permit applications and other matters.

Marcellino, a former science teacher, won his last race with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Newsday endorses Marcellino.


Northeast Town of Hempstead and central Town of Oyster Bay

Republican Kemp Hannon consistently wins the incumbent daily double: He's the dominant leader in the State Senate on the critical issue of health care, and he is vigilant about the specific needs of his district.

Hannon, who is seeking his 11th term, makes the best case for why experience counts. As chairman of the Health Committee, his nuanced knowledge of the complex issues of Medicaid funding help the state cut more than a billion dollars in hidden costs, and he is deeply involved in implementation of the insurance exchanges required by the federal Affordable Care Act. Hannon worked on getting the required approvals for the Hofstra University medical school and on the establishment of an online registry to cut trafficking in prescription painkillers.

Addressing a worrisome problem in his district, Hannon, 66, has been aggressively pressuring the Department of Environmental Conservation to act faster to protect local wells from the underground toxic plume spreading south from the old Grumman Corp. plant in Bethpage toward Massapequa.

Challenger Ryan Cronin, 31, has a future in politics. Like Hannon, he is from Garden City and a graduate of Chaminade High School. A lawyer in Manhattan, he promises to make the Bethpage plume a priority while moving Nassau County toward a "modern economy" by making it easier for high-tech business to thrive. His first time out of the box, Cronin is reaching for the stars. He's promising, but he fails to make the case to turn out one of the Senate's most respected members.

Newsday endorses Hannon.


Town of North Hempstead, parts of the Town of Hempstead and parts of the Town of Oyster Bay

In his first two years in Albany, Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) has shown that his effectiveness as mayor of Mineola was no fluke. He has been a thoughtful, serious, reasonable legislator, too.

In this year's legislative session, in fact, Martins, 45, says he had more bills signed into law than any other Long Island senator. He chairs the Local Government Committee and sits on the Corporations, Authorities and Commissions Committee. That gives him a catbird seat on issues concerning the way state and local goverments are structured.

His Democratic opponent is Daniel Ross, 29, of Manhasset. After five years with Deutsche Bank, Ross left and went into auto sales, rising to general manager of a dealership. Last year, he ran unsuccessfully for fire commissioner in the Manhasset-Lakeville Volunteer Fire Department. This year, he makes the big leap to a Senate race.

On one of the most important issues in this district, Martins and Ross agree: They don't favor a casino at Belmont Racetrack. But the community desperately needs real economic development. The two differ over what that development should look like. Martins says that with community approval, he could support the idea of a soccer stadium for the New York Cosmos. Ross opposes it, and he faults Martins for moving too slowly on Belmont.

Though Ross shows promise, Martins is just the kind of hard-working, nonideological, no-nonsense senator this district needs. His challenge for the next two years is to get something real and beneficial happening at Belmont. Newsday endorses Martins.


Town of Babylon western portion, southern Town of Oyster Bay and southern Town of Hempstead

This year's race marks Round 3 between Republican Sen. Charles Fuschillo, 52, of Merrick, and Democratic challenger Carol Gordon, 59, of Massapequa. Gordon, a former patient advocate at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport who visits schools with her collection of African-American history artifacts, says she will listen to the people of the district to help her choose policy positions. She is passionate about running for the seat, but although this is her third try against the popular incumbent, Gordon's knowledge about key issues is still wanting.

Fuschillo, running for his eighth term, is chairman of the Senate's Transportation Committee, a crucial post for Long Island. While he finds the state Department of Transportation frustrating, he points out that a lot of construction is finally happening now, after he pushed to deliver $347 million for infrastructure improvements for Long Island's bridges and roads in this year's budget. If he's re-elected, we hope he'll continue to push just as hard to make bus rapid transit a reality on the Route 110 corridor, along with a reopening of the Republic Long Island Rail Road station. As for funding the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he understands that if the payroll tax is not reinstated, the money won't come from the fare box.

The newly drawn 8th District is home to some of Long Island's most shamefully failing schools, and we hope Fuschillo, who has deftly dealt with the issues in Roosevelt, makes Wyandanch a particular focus for the next term.

Newsday endorses Fuschillo.


City of Long Beach and much of the Town of Hempstead

Sen. Dean Skelos represents not only the 9th District in Southwest Nassau, he's the leader of the Republican majority, which is seeking to stay in control of the New York State Legislature's upper chamber.

Skelos' influence and ability to deliver for Long Island are reasons enough to support his re-election bid, of which the outcome is all but certain. In a cheeky nod to reality, Democrats have nominated Thomas Feffer, 24, a party intern who is not actively campaigning.

In his first full term as leader, Skelos, 64, of Rockville Centre, partnered with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to muscle into law a 2 percent property tax cap, pension reform and partial rollback of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority payroll tax. And while Skelos didn't vote for same-sex marriage, his willingness to end a GOP blockade and let the measure come to the floor paved the way for New York's historic vote.

Skelos has grown confident and comfortable as majority leader and now must take on new challenges, such as relieving school districts from costly and burdensome state mandates. And he must persuade the northernmost members of his conference to allow the building of a transmission line to bring upstate wind and Canadian hydropower downstate. Unfortunately, he let partisanship derail approval of a bill to allow Long Beach to borrow to restructure its budget and avoid a big tax hike. Skelos also must remain vigilant about environmental damage caused by the outflow of the Bay Park Sewer Treatment Plant.

Newsday endorses Skelos.