The ghost of Al Smith has once again materialized on the grounds of the State Capitol. Smith, a former New York Governor and candidate for President of the United States, intoned those famous words, "I don't belong to an organized political party. I am a Democrat." Those words were prophetic not only as they apply to the current State Senate turmoil but in general as they relate to the sad history of Democrats in power in that august body.
Back in 1965, buoyed by the strong vote for President Lyndon Johnson, the Democrats were able to end 50 years of Republican rule and took over the control of the Senate. Joseph Zaretski, a puckish and eloquent member was elected the Senate Majority Leader. One year was not enough time for the Democrats to counter the historic strength of upstate Republicans and in 1966 Earl Brydges, a western New York fixture, took over the reins of the Senate.
Fast forward to 2009 when the Democrats became the majority party by the tiniest of margins. Given the gift that doesn't always keep on giving, the Democratic Conference splintered into a handful of factions, each one determined to enjoy the fruits of power in some cases at any costs. After six months of control a handful of members dubbed the "Amigos" chose to bolt the party and for a short time aligned themselves with the Republicans.
That odd accumulation of power lasted only a short time as scandal after scandal turned the Democratic Conference into a political cesspool. One would have expected that the embarrassment of headline after headline would have caused the remaining members to purge the miscreants from the conference. Nothing happened and then finally four members bolted the party and formed the Independent Democratic Conference.
For the next two years the Democrats coexisted while the Republican Party prospered under the leadership of Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Working closely with Governor Andrew Cuomo the Republicans passed a business friendly agenda and got rave reviews from the state's business community. While the Republicans were making friends and influencing people the Democrats were content to keep the same leadership structure making no meaningful attempt to woo the unhappy foursome back into the fold.
The fate of the Republican majority this year depended on winning two to three seats but a strong vote for President Obama upset those plans. To the surprise of many the control by the Republicans was endangered by some key losses, yet most political observers didn't expect the Democrats to regain control as they had failed to build a unified group by bringing on a new cast of leaders. There is a lot of talent in the Democratic conference but somehow the progressives have failed to challenge the status quo.
So for now the Republicans and the Independent Democrats have forged a new alliance agreeing to power sharing and a joint agenda. The idea of two-party sharing has never been tested at any time in recent memory. In 1965 Republicans in the Assembly helped elect a Democratic Speaker but there is no history of power sharing or wholesale favors that year.
This new alliance is such a dramatic change for Albany or any other statehouse, that is might even have the potential to work. Republicans get to hold onto power and the independent Democrats gain new stature. The remaining Democratic minority could call this an act of treason and claim it defies the will of the voters. In fact, the Democratic minority lost its claim to control years ago and until they become a new conference, they will be destined to remain a minority for many years to come.
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