Neil Breslin has the weight of the Senate Democrats on his
back; can he help restore them to power?
you find us all right?” Sen. Neil Breslin asks as he greets
me in his fifth floor office at the Capitol on a cold and
gloomy Wednesday in late January. From one of his office
windows you can see the Empire Plaza; through the other,
downtown Albany and City Hall. But the view is only temporary.
“They are probably moving us again soon,” he says. The office
is in a bit of a state of disarray. Breslin is now the Senate
deputy minority leader, in charge of his party’s transition
back to the minority after a fleeting term in the majority,
and the change hasn’t been a smooth one.
thought they would be nice. I really did,” he says, referring
to the Senate Republicans. He tells stories of how Republicans
came to him in 2008, shocked about what it meant to be part
of the minority—limited resources for staff, small offices,
about 600 parking spaces to the minority’s 30 or 40.
Breslin says one Republican senator told him, “I never knew
it was this bad.” Breslin thought the lesson would give
the Republicans a kinder touch now that they have returned
to the majority. But, in his opinion, it hasn’t worked out.
would point to my 12 years in the minority when I was never
able to have a policy bill get on the floor. I wasn’t able.
If I called Republican senators and asked, ‘Can I get on
a bill its very good?’ the answer would be ‘No, you can’t
be on that bill!’ That’s not democracy.”
way we did business wasn’t perfect when we took over,” says
Breslin, “but we did do things that made it more democratic.”
As hard as it may be to believe, during their time in the
majority, Democrats did change things. They worked with
Republicans to amend the rules so it would be easier for
minority members to get action on bills and co-sponsor legislation
they support. Breslin says he hasn’t felt any of that courtesy
Compounding the tension with the majority, the Democrats
themselves are splintered. Four party members—lead by former
deputy majority leader Jeffrey Klein—bolted to form their
own conference. Democrats, including Breslin, say they think
the four left simply to get better offices, appointments
and perks from Republicans. The independent Democrats say
they left because they had no faith in the Democratic leadership.
Breslin and the Democrats have clashed with Republicans
about whether the Independent Democratic Conference should
be treated as a separate entity from the Democrats. Breslin
argues they are part of the minority—independent or not.
That Democrats should dole out office space and resources
to the four, not the Republicans.
But when Republicans voted to change the rules so that Democratic
Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy could not vote as a tiebreaker in the
Senate, the Independent Democratic Conference voted with
the Republicans and reinforced for Democrats like Breslin
that the independent Democrats made the move for personal
It seems that things can’t get any worse for the minority
party—although in Albany it’s hard to tell when you’ve hit
all of this doom and gloom, Breslin is actually chipper
today. He seems vibrant, exhilarated, ready to take on the
world. It is perhaps odd when you know that Breslin has
been accused in the past of being asleep at the switch,
and that he spent years in the minority only to see his
brief time in the majority squandered. Breslin was the man
in charge on the floor on the day of the Republican coup,
and in some circles he is blamed for not acting fast enough
to procedurally block the move.
But now as deputy minority leader, an important member of
the Senate Democrats campaign committee, head of the transition
into the minority and ranking minority member on the Insurance
Committee, Breslin seems more focused than ever. And it
is his job now to learn from the Democrats’ mistakes that
cost them the majority. It is on Breslin to regain the trust
of voters—especially upstate voters who view the Democratic
conference as New York City-centric.
I ask Breslin if he ever thought he would find himself in
charge of rebuilding the conference. Breslin responds: “No!
But I am delighted with the challenge. I am energized, I
feel better, I’m in better condition than I have been in
Breslin says he took the post because he wants to be more
involved. He wants to have more of stake in the conference
he has long been a part of.
minority leader, I am involved in every activity. I want
to know what is going on in my Democratic Senate so I can’t
use the excuse, ‘I didn’t know,’ so I can make a difference,
make us better able to effectuate change, be responsible,
do the right thing in the Senate and bring it back to a
degree of prominence where people respect the Senate to
a greater extent than they have in the past.”
Breslin is involved down to the minute details. He represents
the Democrats on the floor of the chamber, putting forward
motions and objections, and, as head of the transition,
he has had to oversee the staff layoffs and even manage
the limited parking spaces. “I’ve also assumed a key post
on the campaign committee, so my plate is full,” he explains.
The minority leader has his work cut out for him. Democrats
dug themselves a deep grave and then buried themselves in
debt, fighting, bad PR and a reputation for being incompetent,
corrupt and ineffectual.
the offices of any Senate Democrat today and you will likely
see a sad state of affairs. Stacks of boxes, desks and chairs
in disarray. They laid off more than 150 staffers a few
weeks ago, and Republicans have tossed them from their prominent
majority offices to smaller, less impressive digs.
Ask them why they find themselves in this sorry state, and
many Democrats will tell you it was the Republican midterm
tsunami that swept the nation. But if that were true, why
are New York’s most prominent positions filled by Democrats?
Andrew Cuomo—son of the onetime Democratic figurehead Mario
Cuomo—is governor, uber-liberal Manhattanite Eric Schneiderman
is attorney general, and Thomas DiNapoli, who was shunned
by his fellow Democrats during election season following
rumors that Cuomo was eying him in an investigation relating
to his predecessor Andrew Hevesi, is comptroller.
Other Democrats will blame all their misfortune on the coup—Pedro
Espada’s and Hiram Monserrate’s decision to jump ship and
join Republicans for the promise of power and other favors.
They say they got an undue share of the blame—that the public
incorrectly focused their frustration on them, rather than
the Republicans that initiated the deal with the renegade
The truth? Senate Democrats screwed up in myriad ways—big,
small, ethical, unethical. And it started before they even
officially took the majority.
It wasn’t one gigantic thing that cost them the majority.
It was death by paper cuts—deep, nasty paper cuts. They
made deals with the “Gang of Four” and slighted rural Democrats
who were slated for more power; Sen. Malcolm Smith couldn’t
keep his conference together while Republicans marched in
When the coup hit, Democrats were more concerned with their
immediate power than with doing whatever it took to get
back to the people’s business. And then they made the deal
that made Espada majority leader.
as Breslin says, the Republicans did not get enough blame
for soliciting Espada and Monserrate for the coup, then
perhaps they could have just left Espada with the Republicans
and let them deal with his reputation for corruption. Instead
they lured him back with promises of power and made him
their leader—at least in title.
Sen. John Sampson had already been named “conference leader”
even though that is not an official title of any sort, and
Smith remained Senate president while Sen. Jeff Klein functioned
as deputy majority leader and head of the Senate Democrats’
Breslin notoriously referred to the leadership structure
in a recent interview with Liz Benjamin as “four-headed
monster.” Breslin said all of the members spent what they
wanted and weren’t exactly consulting each other. That lead
to overspending in the campaign committee as well as on
staffing and offices. Breslin says he got in a bit of trouble
over his remarks, but he isn’t hesitant to point out where
he thinks his conference has failed.
might have been able to get away with all of those mistakes
and still retain their majority had they actually run good
campaigns in important races, but in Long Island, in districts
where it looked like they had a good chance to steal away
Republican seats, their candidates imploded. One star Democratic
candidate, Regina Calcaterra, who was challenging Republican
incumbent Kenneth Lavalle, was ruled to not have residency
in the district. Another, David Meijas, who was challenging
Sen. Kemp Hannon, was arrested in September for menacing
and stalking his former girlfriend. Replacement candidates
were found, but it didn’t leave them time to build up steam
against the incumbents. “That gave [Senate Republicans]
the ability to leave those races alone and concentrate on
Brian Foley and Craig Johnson,” said Breslin.
Breslin says he also believes that the the release of the
inspector general’s report on his investigation into Sen.
John Sampson and his relationship with the Aqueduct Entertainment
Group, which was awarded the state contract to run a racino
in Queens before it was revealed that the bidding was less
than honest, really hurt Sens. Johnson and Antoine Thompson
in their races. Breslin also notes that both candidates
made mistakes by not tending to their minor party lines
in races that were decided by a very slim margin. Thompson
didn’t get petitions in on time to make the Independence
line, and Johnson chose not to run on the Working Families
The IG report found that Sampson may have had undue influence
on the bidding process, but that he did nothing illegal.
When asked how he can now work with a man whose behavior
may have very well cost the Demcorats their majority, Breslin
is quick to answer. “I read the IG report. . . . It is interesting.
I came into the Senate not too long after Guy Vellela went
to jail—a Republican. The majority leader, Joe Bruno, a
Republican, was found guilty on federal charges, and I think
Vinny Leibell, a Republican, will go to jail. Yet the report
from the Fisch commission essentially said there is no criminality
here. Would I have done things differently? Probably, but
that is hindsight. I don’t believe John did anything even
approaching a criminal act.”
Breslin says he has disagreed with a number of previous
heads of his conference, but still supported them. “They
aren’t perfect. Democrats aren’t perfect,” he says. Breslin
says he feels Sampson has a problem with “wanting to say
yes to everyone. Is that a fault? I suppose it is, but I’d
much rather have people be too nice than not that nice.”
But there are still more reasons Democrats lost the majority:
Breslin mentions the Republican tsunami that swept congressional
seats and, when I ask him about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s lack
of public support for Democratic candidates, his response
isn’t shy. “Yes, I think it hurt us. But, no, I don’t hold
him accountable. I think if I were in his position, I probably
would have done the same thing. He was trying to position
himself as the person who would change how the state did
business, and I think that made it difficult for him to
come in and help us the way Gov. Spitzer or Paterson helped
us in particular Senate races. I don’t think there is any
evil intent at all. I’m delighted he is governor and think
he will do wonderful things for Democrats.”
why is it, despite all the work Breslin has cut out for
him—with four Democrats having bolted the conference and
two more years of groveling for respect in the minority—that
he acts like he has a secret, walking around with a bit
of a grin?
It may be that he has outlasted his opposition in the Democratic
conference. When Breslin was up for minority leader in 2006,
he competed with Malcolm Smith, Eric Schneiderman, and Jeff
Klein. Smith’s tenure as majority leader and Senate president
is seen as a disaster; Schneiderman is now attorney general,
and Klein was so frustrated with his limited position in
the conference that he formed his own.
But Breslin indicates he has other reasons to be hopeful.
Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate are gone. During the last
two years, Breslin would privately fume about their behavior
and gleefully rejoice each time they were set back. Not
only have they been replaced, but Breslin says they were
replaced by candidates who make him proud. He thinks the
conference, despite its losses, has picked up a considerable
number of progressive thinking, people-minded politicians.
have a lot of great new senators. I think we have really
reached critical mass: Mike Gianaris is head of campaign
committee, Tim Kennedy, Adriano Espaillat, Jose Peralta
are extremely bright, and—Gustavo Rivera! We have three
new Latino representatives and think of them taking the
places, in part, of Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada—just
to remove those two was a great move, but to pick up two
extremely bright senators is really remarkable.”
Breslin is certain that his conference’s legislative priorities
will also help them earn voters’ respect.
He says the job-creating initiatives that were started under
Smith while Democrats held the majority are now being embraced
by Cuomo. “I think its interesting that we got blamed for
being New York City-centric. I happen to be from Albany,
Kennedy from Buffalo and Valesky from Syracuse. During the
12 years I spent in the minority we saw double-digit unemployment
throughout upstate. When we were in the majority we came
up with programs to create jobs. We were sensitive to it,
and now our focus has to be on economic development with
an emphasis on upstate.”
An issue that most experts say will have a more direct affect
on the Democrats retaking the majority is independent redistricting.
While politicians were having their feet held to the fire
during the elections, a number of prominent legislators
pledged that they would support independent redistricting.
Currently, legislators get to draw up district lines after
each census. The majority parties on both sides of the legislature
invariably draw up districts that benefit their party.
means,” Breslin says, “that there are five and a half Democrats
for every eight voters in New York State. It has been that
way for a long time and [the state] is trending more Demcoratic,
yet Demcorats have been in the minority in the Senate, except
for 3 years for over the last 70 years.
what [the Republicans] have done is carved out districts
politically so a Democratic district might be 90-percent
Democrats and a Republican district would be 55/45 Republican.
They would even restrict the number of minorities in a particular
district. I shouldn’t be given that authority, just as I
shouldn’t have the authority to police myself and my own
conduct. It should be given to some independent body.”
But one of the men who promised to support independent redistricting,
Sen. Dean Skelos, was in the minority at the time; having
now returned to the majority, the senator has changed his
tone on independent redistricting. Democrats plan to push
hard for Skelos to stick to his promise and support legislation
that would have an independent, impartial group draw up
would be less than honest if I didn’t say that, if you do
it honestly, Democrats will benefit. Even if you do it less
than honestly, we might benefit because of the overwhelming
numbers. But that isn’t to say we shouldn’t do it honestly.”
Perhaps the most important piece of their agenda is actually
the entire Legislature’s best chance at redemption in the
public’s eyes—ethics reform. Breslin doesn’t hesitate when
it comes to that issue.
hope they make it so strict that they drive people away
from here. Unless we do that, we are are not going to be
able to get the public to have confidence in us.”
is a gigantic looming impediment to all those changes—and
it isn’t the GOP. It is the budget battle that officially
started on Tuesday, when Cuomo unveiled a budget plan that
slashes $10 billion dollars worth of health care and education
funding, along with heaps of other programs and state spending.
A week before the budget was released, Breslin said he was
still conflicted about the harsh cuts he was hearing about.
He knows cuts have to be made, but he says he is concerned
that accountants are making across-the-board cuts without
thinking about the consequences.
Breslin says he has recently spoken to advocates of respite
and kinship programs. Kinship programs allow family members—aunts,
uncles, grandparents—to take care of children who are without
their parents. Respite services allow mothers with multiple
children or people with sick relatives to take a day off.
Breslin says the services are “leveraged well.”
do everything I can to help save these programs,” he said.
“I already dictated a letter to the governor on kinship
programs. They shouldn’t be cut. It almost turns out for
every 1 dollar in investment we get 10 dollars in return.
But I am concerned the cuts are being done by accountants,
not by people who understand it. I’m for cutting out $11
billion. But not this,” he says.
Breslin says he hopes the budget process will actually work
this year, rather than degrading into a standoff between
the Assembly, the Senate and the governor.
I mention the term “Albany dysfunction.” Breslin bristles
and smiles—“Honestly, ethics should be out of our hands,”
he says, returning to the previous topic. “I want the toughest
ethics laws we can possibly have, and I want to see that
label gone forever.”