Photo by Jim Franco / Spotlight News
It’s something Sen. Neil Breslin has been waiting for — his party has a solid majority in the state’s upper chamber.
And this time it is a solid majority, unlike a decade ago when the Democrats took control by a two-seat majority. In 2009, some of Breslin’s fellow party members — namely Sens. Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate — were more concerned with their own agenda than that of the party, and sided with the 30 Republican Senators to replace Democratic Majority Leader Malcolm Smith with Republican Dean Skelos.
In an ironic twist of fate, Espada, Monseratte, Smith and Skelos were all convicted of crimes of varying degrees and are no longer in the Senate.
Prior to Nov. 6, the Republicans held a 32-31 majority and while there is still one race outstanding, the Democrats rode the Blue Wave that hit shore in this state and will have at least 39-24 majority and maintain control of the Assembly and governor’s office too.
“It’s what I’ve waited for. It does mean a lot to me,” said Breslin who coasted to a 12th term on Election Day by beating Christopher Davis 68 to 29 percent. “It means we will be able to pass laws that are important and hopefully we will put bills on the floor that will get debated to make them better.”
He said he will support Sen. Andrew Stewart-Cousins, the current caucus leader from Yonkers.
“She is a good leader, she knows the state, upstate and down and she is ethical, honest and strong,” he said. I can’t ask for anything more and it’s nice to break records and have the first woman majority leader and the first African American woman majority leader.”
Breslin is a senior member of the caucus and said he will stay on the Insurance Committee, where he has served for 18 years and has built a national reputation — he is the longest serving president of the National Conference of Insurance Legislators.
He will also likely play a role in the Finance and Rules committees where money is allocated and laws are drafted and re-drafted before ultimately getting forwarded for a vote on the floor.
The chaos that engulfed the state Senate in 2009 continued for a decade, with no strong leader at the helm and the Republicans maintaining control only with the help of a rogue Brooklyn Democrat, Simcha Felder, and a group calling themselves the Independent Democratic Conference.
Come January, there will be 15 new members of the caucus. Six of the eight IDC members were defeated during this last election cycle and the Senate Democrats are united for the first time in recent memory.
“I will try to help them get off to a good start and help them get acclimated to Albany without any major flaws,” Breslin said of the rookies in the chamber.
Asked what advice he will give a rookie looking to hit the ground running, Breslin said: “Be deliberate. Go slowly. We are not going to change the system in a day. Take a slow, gradual participation in the process and by the end of the year we can accomplish more than has been accomplished in several decades.”
Of those accomplishments high on Breslin’s list include bills to make voting easier and more accessible like giving voters the opportunity to vote early like other states and to vote by absentee without the strict regulations governing that practice now. And ending the infamous LLC loophole, a section of Election Law that allows special interest groups to circumvent contribution limits and disclosure requirement and funnel millions of dollars into campaign war chests.
Others include the Child Victim’s Act, a bill that would extend the statute of limitations on certain crimes against children including sex abuse, and extending and protecting the Women’s Health and Wellness Act, which would require his role on the Insurance Committee that perhaps puts New York’s law at odds with that of D.C.
Also, he wants to play a role in redistricting, the redrawing of lines based on the once-a-decade Census. On the one hand, it is seen as crucial to giving people living in legislative districts equitable representation in Albany, and on the other making races easier for political parties depending on which voters are included in which districts.
Pay raises for legislators, he said, would likely get voted down by the electorate by a wide margin, but that decision is now up to an “independent” body appointed by the governor called the New York State Compensation Committee, which is expected to rule on Dec. 10.
“It’s been 19 years and you don’t want to get to the point of not attracting good people, number one, and two you want to make sure they are able to support their families and not be tempted to doing something they should not do,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a quid pro quo. The Legislature shouldn’t have to do something to get a raise.
The last time legislators got a bump to their $79,500 salary was in 1999. Two years ago it was in the works but Gov. Andrew Cuomo tried to add restrictions to outside income so it fell through.
Absolute power …
As the adage goes, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” but Breslin said he still expects there to be a two-party system in New York and expects there will be debates. But, he said, things should go smoother.
“There are still two parties and there will be debates but hopefully there will be things that couldn’t be taken up because the Republicans would not bring them to a floor,” he said. “And the thing is, once they do get to the floor they pass with near unanimous support and many Republicans vote for them too.”
Having a different party control one of the houses has served governors well over the years and allowed them an out, so to speak, when a controversial measure would mean upsetting certain parts of the state when they need to run state-wide. Gov. George Pataki often blamed the Democratically controlled Assembly for such things while Cuomo did the same with the Republicans in the Senate.
Now, though, it’s all Democrats.
“I think it will be OK,” Breslin said of the new relationship parameters between his caucus and the governor. “He has acted in a progressive way over the last year and I think if he continues in that vein he will be easier to get along with. He won’t have to twist our arms because we want many of the same things as he wants. When we agree with him he will love us. When not, probably not so much.”
As for the rogue Democrats who helped keep the Republican in power for the last decade, Breslin said he would welcome Felder back into the fold, but on par with one of the freshman rather than four-term senator.
And the IDC is non-existent, Breslin said with perhaps a bit of satisfaction. They did spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to beat him by backing the now mayor of Cohoes, Shawn Morse in a 2012 primary. Breslin won with 70 percent of the vote.
It is not the first time people in high places have tried to take him out. The Republicans, when Majority Leader Joe Bruno was running the Senates, convinced Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners to switch parties and run against him in 2004. Breslin won with a 20-point margin.
Morse is under fire as mayor of Cohoes on a number of fronts including allegations of domestic abuse and for questions regarding outside employment and Conners is retiring at the end of his term.
And, at least publicly, Breslin is taking the high road when it comes to the IDC — by not threatening the fabled broom closet for an office — and is looking forward to working with something that has not happened in his 22-plus years in the state Senate.
“The two remaining members are members of the Democratic caucus so I say let bygones be bygones,” he said. “We have a solid majority so it will be easier to get things done.”
Senate District 44 includes the City of Albany and the towns of Bethlehem and Colonie in Albany County and a portion of the City of Troy in County.
The state Legislature is due back in session in January 2019.