On Election Day in November 2018, voters across New York State voted for a new direction for the 63-member New York State Senate. With some races remaining close and needing to be finalized based on a count of absentee and provisional ballots, it appears that Democrats have elected 40 Senators and Republicans just 23. There is no way to overstate just what a sea change this is for New York State politics.
There is also no way to overstate the questions that this sea change raise for the Adirondack Park, which is cut up into four State Senate districts, each steadfastly represented by a Republican. These four Senators – Betty Little, Joe Griffo, Patti Ritchie and Jim Tedisco – led by Little whose 45th Senate District has the majority of the Adirondack Park, were members in excellent standing in the exclusive club of the Republican Senate Majority. With a membership of around three dozen they unrelentingly, efficiently and ruthlessly wielded power and thoroughly enjoyed their political spoils.
With the exception of a few brief and chaotic months of Democratic control ten years ago, the State Senate has been an institution guided by a Republican majority since the Civil War.
What does it mean in politics to be in the majority or minority of a Legislative body? It means everything. And there’s no place where the status of a majority member means more than in Albany. In the State Senate, the Democratic minority members were third-class citizens, consigned to a life of political meaninglessness. The majority controlled the legislative calendar and only legislation approved by the majority was allowed out of committee and advanced to the floor for a vote. Majority members controlled all the committees. Minority members were not allowed to co-sponsor majority legislation. Majority members were paid extra money through “lulus” for serving as committee chairs and in majority leadership posts. The majority controlled things like constituency mailings and regularly held back mailings of the minority. The majority had extensive committee staffs that served their every political and policy needs. There were stories about retribution taken on Democrats who dared to debate bills or slow down the legislative calendar that involved seeing their internet, heat and phones shut off in their offices, their reimbursements for travel and expenses going unpaid. Most important, majority members brought back millions of dollars of state funding to their districts while minority members were given scraps.
To be fair, life as a minority member in the Democratically-control State Assembly is no walk in park and minority members there wander in a political wilderness functioning largely as spectators with front row seat. The Senate Republican Majority always had it the best in Albany because of their small numbers. The State Assembly Democratic Majority is somewhere around 105 members out of 150. It’s a place where seniority rules and it’s a place with a lot of big fish to feed. The State Senate majority was compact, with numbers somewhere in the mid-thirties. It was an exclusive club of three dozen. Three dozen people out of 19 million. Quite a club.
The Senate Majority successfully gerrymandered its hold on power even as the number of registered Republicans steadily declined as New York became a dark blue state. They raised millions of dollars from lobbyists, aided by their refusal to change some of the loosest campaign finance laws in the U.S. In 2010, they cut a deal to preserve their gerrymandered districts with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who needed a cooperative State Senate to meet some of his political objectives. In this way they resisted the demographic changes in New York for another 10 years.
Senate Republican Majority members ran political fiefdoms back home in their districts. Republican Assembly members, who function as a farm team of sorts for the Republican Senate Majority, were parts of a Senator’s team, along with local elected officials, party leaders, and various other interest groups. Across Long Island and Upstate New York, these Senate districts sprawled across counties and included scores of towns. A senator from the Republican Majority wore a ring of power for which there was always a long line of interests and constituents who sought their help and dutifully queued up, sometimes waiting weeks or months for the opportunity, to kiss the ring. But the biggest prizes of membership in the Senate Republican Majority was to direct and influence legislation dear to Albany’s robust pay-to-play corporate lobbyist culture and to bring state funding to their districts.
The modern Adirondack Park was formed in 1971 with passage of the Adirondack Park Agency Act, which created an integrated regional land use plan for the private lands and public Forest Preserve in the Adirondack Park. For the last 47 years there has almost always been a Republican State Senator from the Adirondacks in office who was part of the elite Republican Senate Majority. Up until 2002, Senator Ron Stafford from Plattsburgh reigned supreme in the State Senate, enjoying a commanding perch as Chair of the all-powerful Senate Finance Committee for his last 20 years. Stafford’s power was immense. I remember an editorial from the Plattsburgh Press Republican that spelled-out the etiquette for how local government officials and leaders from institutions should approach Stafford for funding. Stafford was followed by Betty Little, who despite serving for 16 years, has never racked up the level of seniority to get one of the most powerful Senate committees. Despite not having a powerful committee, Little was still a member of the exclusive and powerful club of the Republican Senate Majority and wielded power accordingly.
That power was seen as a point of pride for many local elected leaders across the Adirondacks and the North Country. In tangible ways the power of the Republican Senate Majority was widely felt back in the home district where local leaders had long enjoyed their direct connection to raw political power in New York. For many, the Republican Senate Majority was a Great Wall that kept at bay the political barbarians of downstate Democrats who clamored at the gates.
For the last 47 years, local leaders across the Adirondacks have enjoyed the spoils of a political system dominated by the Republican Senate Majority. While some local leaders resented aspects of the modern Adirondack Park, built on regional land use planning on private lands and the state’s vast ownership of lands in the public Forest Preserve, they could always rely upon the Republican Senate Majority to amplify and give voice to their resentments, thwart any efforts to strengthen environmental laws, get them a seat at the table to hash out major policy decisions, and bring home the bacon.
The Republican Senate Majority had grown more tenuous in recent years. In the 63-member State Senate, Democrats had achieved a rough parity of members. At three points in the last 10 years, the Republicans peeled off renegade Democratic senators to caucus with them to preserve a functioning majority. For the last half dozen years, the Republicans cunningly teamed up with a group of disaffected Democratic senators who formed the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC), which caucused with the Republican Senate Majority, even when the Democrats had a numeric majority. One Democratic Senator has caucused outright with the Republicans since his election in 2010.
Even more impressive was the ways that the Republican Senate Majority worked to keep Governor Andrew Cuomo on their side. Until 2018, Cuomo never campaigned against them, never attacked them, and often sided with them in budget negotiations. In Albany’s famous “3-men-in-a-room” government where the final deals are cut, which had grown to four men with IDC leader getting a seat at the table, it was always three against one as Governor Cuomo, the leader of the Senate Republican Majority, and the leader of the IDC all ganged up on the Assembly Speaker.
2018 changed all that. Earlier this year, the IDC, sensing their political fortunes changing as the cities and suburbs recoiled at Trumpism, agreed to disband and join with Senate Democrats. The IDC was pushed to disband by Governor Cuomo, who faced an aggressive primary challenger in Cynthia Nixon who made Cuomo’s support for the IDC a central campaign issue. Despite their decision to rejoin the Democratic conference, the IDC was destroyed in the September primary where mostly women Democratic insurgents defeated six of the IDC’s eight members. The collapse of the IDC unified the Democrats.
This same political calculation used by Cuomo and the IDC, also saw a half dozen long-serving Republican Senators retire rather than run again in 2018. On Election Day, Democrats picked up four of these open seats. In five other races, incumbent Republican Senators were defeated. It’s important to note that only eight of the 40 Democratic Senators have held their offices for more than 10 years. Whether due to Democratic enthusiasm to vote against Trumpism or New York’s demographic changes or the political realignment of suburbs in the Hudson Valley and Long Island, the State Senate has now flipped and Republicans have to figure out how to win back nine seats, which will be a tall order indeed. It seems highly likely that the Republican gerrymander that controlled the State Senate for decades will be undone when districts are redrawn in 2021.
The Adirondacks is largely a one-party Republican state, with the State Senator reigning at the top. All county leaders and town leaders, both party officials and elected Republicans, are profoundly loyal to their chief. What does it mean for Adirondack leaders when their chief no longer enjoys a direct connection to political power in Albany? What does this political sea change mean for the Adirondack Park? What does it mean for Adirondack communities? What does it mean for the relationship of the North Country to the rest of New York?
For years I have lobbied in Albany for the environmental protection of the Adirondack Park and for community development. During that time I have seen, and worked to encourage, strong support for the Adirondack Park throughout the State Assembly. I know a number of leaders of the new Democratic Senate Majority and know that they value the Adirondack Park and see this region as a point of state pride and an invaluable state resource.
One hallmark of the Republican Senate Majority was its consistent hostility to environmental laws and environmental protection in the Adirondacks. For years environmental legislation was dead on arrival in the State Senate. Much of the body of Adirondack environmental law was passed when Ron Stafford was a young senator who traded passage of the APA Act, the New York State Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, the state Wetlands Act, among other laws, with various governors to bring jobs and state facilities to the Adirondacks and his district. I anticipate that environmental legislation will get a fair hearing in the new State Senate. I’m anticipating that leaders in both houses of the Legislature will take seriously the challenges facing the Adirondack Park and Adirondack communities.
But the reality of Albany politics is that it’s a place where the spoils go to the winners. North Country Public Radio reported on a Watertown Daily Times article that talked about five-term Democratic Assembly Member Addie Jenne, who was just defeated in the so-called “River District” that runs along the St. Lawrence River. The Times reported that she had brought back $8 million in funding to her district. When the Times checked with a local Republican Assembly Member about his haul, he could not cite any specific projects. Jenne was defeated by a Republican who as a minority member in the State Assembly will largely be a spectator who collects a check and puts out press releases.
The State of New York has invested mightily in the North Country. Look at all those prisons that Senator Stafford brought to the area. Look at the tons of money that goes into the Olympic Regional Development Authority and the Development Authority of the North Country. Look at Sunmount, all the centers for the developmentally disabled, funding for local hospitals, health centers, museums, art centers, theaters, and non-profits, and so much more. Look at the funding for roads, bridges, tourism, school funding, sewage and water treatment plants. And this list is hardly a full accounting of all the ways in which state funding is accessed by local leaders and institutions who have enjoyed a direct connection to political power in Albany.
Now that the Adirondacks and North Country have lost their connection to political power in Albany, local communities face some choices. Tough it out as an obstinate region of opposition? Talk nonsense about secession from downstate? Start electing Democrats? Wage a desperate political battle against state trends of racial diversification and urbanization that favors Democratic voters? Modify the thinking of white conservative rural Republicans to better align with the mainstream of New York politics? Figure out new coalitions to access state programs? Use the widespread support for the Adirondack Park across New York to leverage support for the region?
Recent U.S. Census population estimates for 2017 showed that Upstate New York had lost 50,000 residents since 2010 while downstate had gained over 500,000. These are the same trends at play across the U.S. where metropolitan areas in cities and suburbs are growing in population, becoming more racially diverse, are getting younger in median age, and are voting more Democratic in the process. Rural areas are growing older, are getting even whiter, and are voting more strongly Republican in the process. The same dynamics that we’re seeing across the U.S. in the Trump era are at play here in the Adirondacks too. The difference is that there’s no Electoral College in New York to tip the scales.
The political change that arrived at the front door of the Adirondacks on Election Day has been a historic inevitability for decades and now it’s here. On the same night that Adirondack and North Country communities lost direct access to political power in Albany, it was lost in Washington, D.C. too. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik was re-elected by the widest margin of any Republican in the northeast U.S., but returns to Washington as a member in excellent standing in the political minority in the House of Representatives. Like Republican State Senators Betty Little, Joe Griffo, Patti Ritchie and Jim Tedisco, Stefanik’s power changed overnight. The changes in the Adirondack Park from New York’s political upheavals will be both psychic and real in the years ahead. My concern is that constructive actions and partnerships that worked to meet key challenges facing the Adirondacks and genuine efforts to make the Adirondack Park work for residents, Wilderness, businesses, wildlife, local communities, the Forest Preserve, and visitors will suffer as political interests retrench and new lines of division are thrown up.
Photo of New York State Capitol Building.