Partisan Tensions Flare in NY Senate Over New Rules

Tensions erupted in the New York State Senate this week as Democratic senators complained over the placement of their chairs, the hours that they were to meet in session, and whether the newly empowered GOP was trying to “grab” more power.

The infighting began when Democratic senators entered the chamber for the first time on Monday and found, to their surprise and anger, that some of their seats had been moved. The Republican majority had complied with a request by four breakaway Democrats, who have formed their own Independent Democratic Conference, to sit together.

Senator Eric Adams of Brooklyn expressed his outrage on the Senate floor as Democrats made a motion to protest the new seating arrangement.

“It was wrong for us to walk into this chamber today and have to go chair by chair to find out where we sit,” Adams said.

The seemingly trivial argument laid bare much more serious divisions and deeper resentments among senators. Senator Adams, an African American , said he was particularly annoyed that two senior women senators, Velmanette Montgomery, who is black, and Susie Oppenheimer, who is white, were still waiting to find out from the GOP which offices they would occupy, when some of the members of the Independent Democratic Conference had already received their new office space.

“Was Senator Montgomery denied her room because she’s an African American woman?” Adams asked.

The accusations caused the chamber to erupt.

Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous, of Binghamton, who’s in charge of the transition, responded, saying the Republicans had given the Democrats more office space than the GOP had received when Democrats were in charge.

“I resent the racist remarks,” said Libous. “I am hurt by that.”

Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy, who was presiding in the chamber, eventually sided with the Republicans in the argument and ruled the Democrats’ motion out of order.

But on the following day, it was Duffy who was at the center of a new argument in the Senate. Democrats claimed that a series of new rules changes would strip the lieutenant governor of his power to cast a tie-breaking vote in procedural matters. Republicans currently hold on to the Senate by the minimum 32 members. If the Republicans were to lose just one member, the Senate would be evenly divided at 31 to 31.  A tie-breaking vote by the Democratic lieutenant governor could bring the Democrats back into control.

Democrats were further annoyed that they had not even heard of the rules changes until just before the session was to begin. Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson called it a “power grab”.

Senate Leader Dean Skelos says the new rules are simply meant to “clarify.”

“There’s no power grab,” Skelos said.

A spokesman for Governor Andrew Cuomo and Lieutenant Governor Duffy refused to be publicly drawn in to the disagreement, saying only “no comment” when asked about it all.

In a knock-down drag-out two-hour Rules Committee meeting that followed, Democrats also complained that the meeting hours of the Senate had been arbitrarily changed from 11 am to 3 pm without much notice. To add insult to injury, in the Democrats’ opinion, they were also asked by the GOP to approve a new committee, on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse, to be chaired by the leader of the breakaway Democrats, Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx. Each of the four Independent Democrats had been given a committee and an extra stipend. None of other the 26 Democrats were given a coveted chairmanship.

Senate Leader Dean Skelos, who made the announcement, says the Independent Democrats asked and the other Democrats did not. Skelos points out that two GOP Senators were give committee chairs when the Democrats ruled in 2009 and 2010.

“The spirit of bi partisanship can exist in Albany,“ Skelos said.

The youngest member of the Independent Democrats, David Carlucci of Rockland County in the Hudson Valley, agrees that the Senate needs to rise above petty partisan bickering.

“We’re debating where people sit, and meanwhile people are losing their jobs in New York State,” said Carlucci.

In the end, the 26 Democrats won a temporary victory. Republicans in the Rules Committee discovered they were short by one vote and could not approve the rules changes over the Democrats’ objections. One GOP member, Senator Ken LaValle of Long Island, was absent. The Republicans discovered something the Democrats learned during their two years in power, it’s difficult to govern with the bare minimum number of Senators required for a majority. Senate Leader Skelos says the new rules will be taken up again, as early as next week.