When Majorities Don't Mean Control

In the Empire State, winning elections doesn’t always translate into power it seems. Next year, Democrats will likely have a majority of seats in the state’s upper chamber. But they aren’t likely to control it. It’s one of the stranger outcomes of the latest election.

Just getting a majority of seats was impressive. Since 1965, the Democrats only controlled the chamber once, in the 2009-2010 session. The party had conceded easy victories, agreeing to a deal in which the GOP drew Senate districts in exchange for a more favorable Democratic map in the state Assembly. But in the end, they had a lot to celebrate. Two Democratic incumbents held their seats against tough challenges, while an open seat in Rochester, previously held by the GOP, switched hands. Perhaps most exciting for the long-suffering party, in the “super Jewish” district, former Councilman Simcha Felder beat the incumbent senator with a commanding 67 percent. In total, Democrats have a 31-30 majority, with two races still undecided. But even in both of those, the Dems had the lead.

The Democrats, it seemed, would have a chance to rule, and perhaps get people to forget about the leadership crisis the last time they were in power. (That time two scandal-plagued Democratic senators, Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate, joined the Republicans in mounting a coup, prompting a month-long legislative meltdown, until they returned to the Democrats.)

But instead, the story is turning into a more scandal-ridden, adult version of Charlie Brown. And the Democrats don’t seem very likely to kick a football any time soon.

That’s because less than a week after the election, Simcha Felder announced he will be caucusing with the Republicans. And the GOP-wooing might not stop there. In 2011, four Democrats, broke off from their caucus to create an “Independent Democratic Conference.” As a result, the GOP gave them committee chairmanships. There’s no word on which way they’ll swing this year. That means, even if the Democrats win both undecided races, and have a 33-30 majority over Republicans, there’s a reasonable likelihood they won’t control the chamber.

It’s easy to point to the problems of redistricting here. A late October poll from Siena College showed 55 percent of state voters wanted the Democrats to control the Senate; only 36 percent wanted the GOP. Were the districts drawn more evenly, there’s little doubt that Democrats would be in power. This is, after all, New York.

But both sides know the rules, and the Democrats seem to be squandering whatever opportunities they get. It’s easy to wonder if leadership that can’t convince people to stick together when they would win is a group that would be competent in the first place. After all, politics is in fact a skill, and it’s one that seems oddly lacking among the state Democratic leadership.

 

 

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