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Photo: Alicia Solsman

Time to Rebuild

Sen. Neil Breslin has the weight of the Senate Democrats on his back; can he help restore them to power?

By David King

‘Did 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.

“I 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.

“I 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.”

“The 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 returned.

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 gain.

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 the bottom.

Despite 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 years.”

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.

“As 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.

Visit 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 Democrats.

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 lockstep.

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.

If, 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’ political efforts.

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.

Democrats 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 Party line.

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.”

So 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.

“We 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.

“It 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 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 district lines.

“It 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.

“I 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.”

There 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.”

“I’ll 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.”


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