Man on a Hot Seat, Sen. Schneiderman Targeted by G.O.P.

On a typically gray and bitter mid-January day in Albany, Republican State Senators clustered around their majority leader, Senator Joseph Bruno, at a press conference responding to Governor George Pataki’s budget. Several Senators were wearing red-and-white buttons on their lapels. From the back of the room, you couldn’t see much more than the little dash of color. But the words on the button weren’t meant for the press, or the public for that matter.

They were meant for one person: Democratic State Senator Eric Schneiderman, the Upper West Side resident who ran his party’s energetic attempt to unseat several Republican Senate incumbents last fall. His efforts were in vain: None of the 36 Republican State Senators lost. With their little buttons, the Republicans assembled around Mr. Bruno were reminding Mr. Schneiderman of his failure. They read: “We Did It Again. 36 + No Change. Thanks Senator Schneiderman.” Were this the Super Bowl, the Republicans would have been penalized for excessive celebration.

The sophomoric taunting, however, had a more sinister edge to it, and it reveals a side of Albany that incumbents of both parties would presumably rather keep hidden. Since Election Day, Albany insiders have been whispering that top Republicans have no intention of limiting their vengeance to little buttons. Mr. Schneiderman says he’s been warned by friendly Republicans–he would not identify them–that G.O.P. operatives are trying to gin up an ethics probe, or to get a “friendly prosecutor” to open an investigation of Mr. Schneiderman–and, of course, to make sure that the press knows about it. And there’s speculation that when the State Senate redraws district boundaries later this year, as it does after every federal census, Republican map makers may move Mr. Schneiderman’s West Side residence into a new, predominately Latino district. That very likely would ensure a difficult primary for Mr. Schneiderman in 2002.

“It’s not very pleasant, but neither is tackling the ball carrier in a football game,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “It’s part of the job. If you’re going to bang heads with these guys, sometimes your head is going to hurt. Is it fun? No. Is it encouraging me that I’m having an effect? Yes.”

The animosity directed at Mr. Schneiderman suggests the extent to which Albany and its machers –including elected officials, lobbyists and union officials–are comfortable and indeed content with the status quo: a Democratic-controlled Assembly and a Republican-controlled Senate. Every two years, Democrats make noises about taking control of the Senate (their hold on the Assembly is so strong that it would take a miracle of 1994 proportions for the Republicans to win a majority there). It never happens.

“There’s a perceived cordiality in Albany,” said Democratic State Senator David Paterson, whose district is just a little north of Mr. Schneiderman’s. “It’s generally understood that the minority leader would never campaign against the majority leader, and vice versa. But Eric Schneiderman thought, as campaign chair of the Senate Democrats, we should campaign in all the districts and try to win the seats.”

Mr. Paterson says he is one of three Democratic Senators who have been warned by Republicans that they were “going to get” Mr. Schneiderman. Mr. Paterson wouldn’t say who the others were or who told him, other than to say it was a Republican staffer.

Mr. Schneiderman, a young, perpetually tan legislator, now walks the halls of the State Capitol with a target on his back. He said the nameplate on his office door was removed several times; it’s now fastened by superglue. And he says it took him months longer than other Senators to get a new computer last fall, when the campaign was underway.

“Any challenge to the status quo in Albany is viewed with shock and horror by most members of the Legislature,” he said. “They are in positions of power through the current structure, and changes can only threaten them. But that’s not my point of view.”

And for that point of view, he may get to see firsthand what people in power can do to a junior Senator whose party is in the minority in the State Senate.

“Albany is still pretty much a collegial town,” said Norman Adler, who is both a consultant to Senate Republicans and a friend of Mr. Schneiderman. “Even when people are fighting, there are a lot of small courtesies, and I suspect [Mr. Schneiderman] may not be privy to some of those courtesies.”

“He went over the top,” said Joseph Mercurio, a consultant to Republican Senator Roy Goodman. “So maybe he should get his wrist slapped.” Mr. Mercurio suggested several ways that Mr. Schneiderman may find life more difficult than it was last year. He may find it harder “to get legislation passed,” or he may “get hurt in re-apportionment.” His outlay for staff may be cut–thanks to their majority in the Senate, Republicans can control these kinds of things–or worse, he may not be allowed his quota of “member items,” which is Albany-speak for political pork.

Identifying Targets

Last summer, Mr. Schneiderman–then only a freshman–targeted several veteran Republican incumbents for electoral elimination, including Manhattan’s Roy Goodman (who wound up squeaking through by fewer than 200 votes) and Guy Velella of the Bronx, who chaired the Republican Party’s statewide Senate campaign and thus was Mr. Schneiderman’s opposite number.

In a year when Al Gore was sweeping New York, the thinking went, Democrats were in a good position to unseat a few Republicans and perhaps even to win the six seats that would have toppled the decades-old Republican grip on the Senate. The thinking was wrong. But Republican incumbents were required to work harder, and spend more, than is usually the custom in a state where Assembly and Senate members nearly always win re-election.

That didn’t sit well with top state Republicans. Not only did they not appreciate the challenge, but they had no love for Mr. Schneiderman, a young upstart, in the first place. “Eric Schneiderman is more aggressive than they’re used to,” said one Democratic state official. “He’s more obnoxious and ballsy. So now they’re giving him the business.”

Mr. Velella, a long-serving Republican who was among Mr. Schneiderman’s targets, insists that he harbors no hard feelings for his colleague. “I’m a warm and fuzzy guy!” Mr. Velella proclaimed in an interview from his Bronx office. “I don’t get angry. This is all fun and games. It’s teasing. It’s sportsmanship. My God, did he come crying to you about this? Grow up! He’s a freshman minority Senator, and freshmen don’t count. Who cares?”

Mr. Velella insists that he doesn’t know where the anti-Schneiderman buttons came from–and as for the rumor about people “getting” Mr. Schneiderman, he conceded that he “heard it from other people” whom he would not name. “I’m certainly not out to get him, and I’m certainly not out to dig up anything on anybody.”

Anyway, Mr. Velella says, Mr. Schneiderman started it, by threatening in 1999 to send him a dozen black roses after the anticipated defeat of Republican Thomas Morahan in a special election in Rockland and Orange counties.(Mr. Schneiderman says the “promise” was made by a Democratic staffperson.) But Mr. Morahan won the special election. So Mr. Velella sent Mr. Schneiderman a packet of Kleenex.

Such gestures seem like light-hearted pranks after the bitter contests of 2000. The near defeat of Mr. Goodman, and the highly charged challenge to Mr. Velella, were the most obvious breaks with electoral business as usual in state politics.

Democrat Liz Krueger not only came within fewer than 200 votes of beating Mr. Goodman, but actually gave what turned out to be a premature victory speech after early results showed that she was winning. Mr. Schneiderman was at her side during the speech. Republicans noticed.

Guy’s Pill Box

Meanwhile, in the Bronx, Mr. Velella was fighting back a challenge from Lorraine Coyle Koppell, the wife of former State Attorney General Oliver Koppell. At first Mr. Velella, who prides himself on constituent service, didn’t seem particularly worried–he always is thought to be vulnerable, and he invariably wins by a large margin. One piece of his election paraphernalia was a pill-a-day box, handed out in senior centers, with one letter of his name embossed on each day of the week: “V-E-L-E-L-L-A.”

“I was born to that–seven letters in my name,” Mr. Velella chortled. “One for each day of the week, so every morning when they get up they’re reminded of how much Guy Velella loves them.”

Then, a week before Election Day, the Daily News reported that Mr. Velella and his father, a Board of Elections official, were under investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney for possibly taking money to steer a state contract to a Bronx company. Mr. Velella, who denied the allegations, insisted he didn’t blame Mr. Schneiderman for the story. “I don’t know that he did that. If he did that, I would be very angry. But I wouldn’t say it was him unless I knew it was him,” Mr. Velella said.

Mr. Velella’s allies say otherwise. “This was the dirtiest, most personally vicious campaign I’ve seen in 20 years,” said one Republican Senate staff member. “It’s practically criminal in terms of what was being leaked from the grand jury.”

Oddly enough, for all the passion and hard feelings, the Republican Senate under Mr. Bruno isn’t a bastion of conservative ideology. In fact, Mr. Bruno–considered to be more conservative than Governor Pataki–votes like a Democrat on many issues. In mid-January, he announced that the Senate will offer domestic-partner insurance coverage to employees, and he helped pass legislation in early January requiring insurance companies to cover mammograms and contraceptives. “Republicans have capitulated on everything from [abortion] clinic access to gun control,” said upstate Democratic Senator Richard Dollinger. “I would say voters decided to let Republicans stay in office”–but only after they passed such seemingly Democratic measures as a hate-crimes bill and a state-funded insurance program for poor people.

“The fact that [Mr. Schneiderman's efforts] brought down the margins of victory for these Republicans from the high 50′s to 51, 52, 53 percent has caused some soul-searching,” said one lobbyist.

Soul-searching? Perhaps, after all, that’s the source of the discomfort.