ALBANY—John Sampson thinks, not unreasonably, that the State Senate needs a new look.
“We need to come out of the box in January and start to really pass some progressive and positive legislation because people have one characterization of us,” Sampson, the leader of the chamber’s Democratic conference, told reporters during an informal chat in his Capitol office. “We need to change that. Basically, we need a makeover. Hopefully, the legislative action in the coming months will help us in the making over.”
In a wide-ranging 25-minute conversation with reporters, Sampson signaled his support for raising the cap on charter schools, said it was premature to try and eject Hiram Monserrate from the chamber, contended that school districts should expect to see their state funding cut next year and, notably (if unsurprisingly), said that he doesn’t anticipate making any changes to the conference’s “leadership team.”
“We have a leadership team,” Sampson said.
He was asked the question several times. “It is comprised of Senator Smith and Senator Espada, Senator Jeff Klein and myself. I run the day-to-day operations, the administrative and legislative agendas of the State Senate, and that is the leadership team. At this point in time, as indicated, we have a legislative team. We will be talking to members of the conference just making sure that we are all on the same page and getting ready to do some great things in 2010. No more surprises. We want a pretty boring 2010.”
“I think people are not really concerned about the leadership so much, I think people are really concerned about the results or the things that arise out of the leadership and the issues that are really pushed forth to help the people of the state,” he continued. “Sometimes it’s like, people are not concerned about who is the pilot of the plane, but as long as the plane gets landed.”
Regarding Senator Hiram Monserrate, who Senator Brian Foley is working to expel from the chamber after his conviction for misdemeanor assault, Sampson said, “I’m still waiting for a decision from the committee, and once we get those recommendations I will make the appropriate decisions.” He said this will happen “within the next couple of weeks.”
Sampson said that in the next budget cycle, “everything is on the table,” and that cuts to school aid are now “appropriate.”
“We stopped the mid-year school cuts, but the school boards and everybody needs to know that everything is on the table,” Sampson said. “Cuts are appropriate, so you need to come to the table with a mindset knowing that there are going to be cuts, and you’re going to need to figure out a way that you can deal with them.”
At the end of the session, I asked Sampson what the biggest obstacle was that his conference faced this year.
“Managing the expectations of the advocates, that was the biggest obstacle,” he replied. “If we knew how to manage our expectations a little better, I think we could have managed our conference a little better, especially dealing with the one-vote majority.”
The answer came after a 30-second pause in which some other reporters suggested an attempted coup and month-long stalemate as a larger obstacle. Sampson was asked how managing expectations led to the coup, if at all.
“Dealing with a lot of the issues that members of our conference wanted to deal with, some of the advocates, some of the issues that they believed in and worked with other groups. I think if we managed that expectation better and dealing with that, I think we might have been able to prevent the coup from occurring,” Sampson said. “Sometimes you have to listen to the cries or the cries of your members and the issues that they have, because instead of always thinking you know what the agenda is, sometimes you need to sit back and listen to people and see what their agenda is, and see if you can incorporate into the whole and work toward it. Especially when you’re operating with a fragile majority. And everybody knows in our conference that we don’t have the discipline that they have in the other conference but we’re getting to that point. It’s going to take a while, but we are a lot more disciplined than people expected. A perfect example is during the coup and the ability for us–our democratic members–to sit together. Because I bet that everyone sitting at this table and on the phone never thought our senate Democrats would stick together. That we would just go: a faction would go here, a faction would go there. And if you were betting, I bet you bet against it. I would have bet against it too.”