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Monday, February 25, 2008

Democrats Fish For Senate Majority

- The franchise debacle may be over (maybe), but politics in Albany of course go on. And the attention this week is squarely on the upstate 48th District, otherwise known as the North Country, where a special election will take place on Tuesday between two Assemblymen, Democrat Darrell Aubertine and Republican William Barclay, to replace Republican State Senator James Wright, who is retiring after 15 years in office. With the Republicans holding a mere two seat edge in the Senate, a win for the Democrats would move them to within a single seat of gaining power in the chamber, and ending the Senate Majority reign of Senator Bruno. (And in fact, Fredric U. Dicker reports in the NY Post that Spitzer is planning to immediately court possible party-switchers to expedite Bruno's ouster should this election go the Democrats' way.)

Such a switch would make Senator Malcom A. Smith of Queens the Senate Majority Leader; and the Republicans are noting the fact that both he and Silver, as well as Manhattan-resident Spitzer, would put an inordinate amount of power in downstate hands who may not be sympathetic to upstate needs. It could also turn the three men in a room to the three men with a broom, as they sweep Democratic initiatives through the state capitol. So, any change this profound would certainly have an effect on our subject at hand, so it's certainly worth following here. Perhaps at some point, I'll start a sister blog to cover Albany politics - Left at the State.......House. Or something like that. But for now, I know you all love a hotly contested horse race, so....

One of the reasons why the race is causing so much angst for Republicans is because the district has heretofore been considered a safe one for the GOP, with a significant party registration edge of 78,454 to 46,824. Yet, the polls show that the race is a statistical dead heat. The GOP further fears that a win by the Democrat Aubertine could encourage other Republican Senators, many of whom are in their 60's or 70's, to decide not to run when all the seats come up for re-election in the fall. I guess that the prospect of being in the minority is no fun when one has been in the presiding party for 40 years.

So there's no wonder that interest is high, and that money is pouring in from around the state.

Of about $722,000 raised by Mr. Aubertine in the latest filing period, 3.5 percent came from within the district, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group, as did 1.4 percent of the $699,000 raised by Mr. Barclay. [NY Times]
In addition, according to the Times, the Senate GOP, under Bruno, has pledged some $2 million for Barclay, and the Democrats, under Spitzer, the same amount for Aubertine. Bruno traveled to Florida last week to raise money for this race and others at Donald Trump's mansion, the Albany Times-Union reported. [Syracuse Post-Standard] And that money and support is evident in slick campaign ads such as this:

And as one might expect, the campaign has gone negative; and despite a handshake promise during a televised debate to refrain from attack ads, they have continued unabated from both sides.

Aubertine is attacking the Republican Barclay over a $30 fishing fee that the latter's father imposed some 20 years ago on fishers plying their trade in a section of the Salmon River that the family owns. The fee was hotly contested; the elder Barclay sued fishermen who refused to pay, and his right to collect it was upheld in court in 1997. Still, emotions run high.
"I haven't paid Barclay, and I never will," said Robert Jordan, a part-time fishing guide who said he's been catching salmon and trout in the river on a McKenzie-style drift boat since the late 1970s.

"I don't believe I should have to pay what I have already paid for with my license dollars and tax dollars. The water doesn't belong to anybody yet he controls the water," Mr. Jordan, a registered Republican and a respondent in the lawsuit, said.

"It's like the Gestapo down there," a 62-year-old fishing guide outside Pulaski, Richard Redsicker, said. [NY Sun]
Barclay supporters claim that the area of the river in question was treated poorly before the fee was imposed, and that the money has helped to maintain the river. But Aubertine tapped into lingering resentment by running this ad:

It was subsequently revealed that the narrator of the ad, who claimed that he used to fish in the river with his grandfather, is actually Justin Winkle, a 25-year old fishing guide. The Aubertine campaign responded that the narration merely represented a "composite" of other fishermens' experiences. Winkle recanted his story and apologized to the Barclay family (the day after two Barclay supporters took him out for drinks, after which he was arrested for DUI).

Meanwhile, the Barclay campaign is accusing Aubertine of conflict of interest in connection with a June 2003 Assembly vote in which he voted in favor of legislation that would allow farmers to host wind turbines without having their property-tax assessments increased. [Valley News Online] Here's the ad:

According to the Valley News report linked to above, Aubertine had been approached two weeks earlier regarding installing wind generators on his farm. In 2006, Aubertine told a local paper that he had abstained from “several bills that may or may not have been construed as a benefit to me or my family.” And he repeated that assertion in a rather awkward denial on a local TV newscast.

However, the Valley News report claims that "the legislative record indicates Aubertine voted in favor of the bill." And the Syracuse Post-Standard reported that Aubertine collects two $700 payments a year from a company seeking to develop wind turbines. The Aubertine campaign responds that their candidate was one of many farmers to sell their wind rights, and that he did so a year after the vote in question. It told the NY Daily News' Daily Politics blog:
"Five years later, there are still no windmills on the Aubertine property. The company is only studying a potential project. Will Barclay, however, voted just last year to protect the $800,000 in Empire Zone tax credits that his law firm receives." [Aubertine campaign statement on the NY Daily News Daily Politics blog]
And so it goes. American politics at its worst. Add in a lawsuit by the Barclay campaign seeking a ballot spot on the Independent Party line, and some angry residents who fear having their property infringed by possible eminent domain claims related to a wind farm project, and we have a real barn burner going on. For the latest developments, I highly recommend the aforementioned Daily Politics blog; reporter Elizabeth Benjamin is the proprietor and she provides regular updates.


Anonymous said...

Not so fast. Check out the following article from none other than Bennett Liebman from the Albany Times Union last February.

"In state politics, there's no tiebreaker"


Albany, New York Times Union
First published: Monday, February 26, 2007

Much of the "inside the Northway" chatter the about the state Senate involves the potential for a Democratic takeover.

With a Democratic win in the Feb. 6 special election for a vacant Senate seat in Nassau County, the tally in the Senate now stands at 33 Republicans and 29 Democrats.

There is the widespread belief that if the Democratic leadership can somehow convince two Republicans to defect, then the Senate will effectively be in Democratic control.

The belief is that with a 31-31 tie, Lt. Gov. David Paterson, would cast all the decisive votes, much as the vice president can break ties in the U.S. Senate.

That belief is not totally valid.

The state constitution does provide that the lieutenant governor "shall be the president of the senate but shall have only a casting vote therein."

The notion of a casting vote is that the lieutenant governor would ahve the right to break ties.

It would probably not give the lieutenant governor the right to vote to force a tie.

Nonetheless, the Constitution in describing the manner in which a bill becomes a law provides the following:

"Nor shall any bill be passed or become a law, except by the assent of a majority of the members elected to each branch of the legislature."

This provision means a bill can be passed only when the majority of the members of each house vote for the bill.

The lieutenant governor is not a member of the state Senate.

With 62 members, the affirmative votes of 32 members are needed to pass a bill.

If a vote on a bill is 31-31, it does not pass, and the lieutenant governor is not authorized by the Constitution to vote on the bill.

These are not inadvertent or unknown provisions.

Charles Lincoln's authoritative history of the state Constitution notes that the lieutenant governor's casting vote must be read with the provision "which requires the assent of a majority of each branch of the legislature on the passage of a bill."

"It is obvious that the majority cannot be made up by the addition of the lieutenant governor's vote."

"He is not a member of the senate and legislative power is not vested in him, but in the senate and the assembly."

A similar observation was made by the Temporary State Commission on the Constitutional Convention, which was formed to help educate the State Constitutional Convention of 1967.

The commission advised that the lieutenant governor had enjoyed a casting vote in the Senate since the first State Constitution in 1777.

Nonetheless, "since Section 14 of Article III provides that no bill is to become law 'except by the assent of the members elected to each branch of the legislature,' the Lieutenant Governor's casting vote may only be exercised in matters of legislative procedure."

This, of course, does not mean the lieutenant governor is powerless in the event Senate is deadlocked.

If the number of Republican and Democratic legislators is equal, the lieutenant governor could break ties on matters such as confirmation of gubernatorial appointees, legislative rules, resolutions, adjournments, and the selection of Senate officers.

That would make the Senate Democrats the majority party, able to choose the majority leader, for example.

But on legislation, David Paterson is no Dick Cheney.

The state Constitution gives the lieutenant governor no say on legislation.

If the Senate is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans and senators vote strictly along party lines, no bills pass.

In the matter of New York state legislation, a tie is a tie, is a tie.

Bennett Liebman is coordinator of the Racing and Gaming Law Program at Albany Law School's Government Law Center.

Anonymous said...

If anyone thinks that having democrats in full control is a good thing take a look at New Jersey.

Alan Mann said...

Interesting piece by Mr. Liebman, thanks for posting. Of course, the Democrats have far higher aspirations than merely a tie come november.