The New Dean of the Republican Senate Tries to Keep His Majority Safe, and Maybe Even Make It Grow

 Mr. Skelos has been counting votes for as long as he can remember.

All through grade school, he ran for class representative, and in high school, he was elected class treasurer, before losing a race for president of the student government-by 12 votes.

“I’m still counting those,” he said on Monday. “I’ll never forget.”

The woman he calls “Mother Helen”—whom his father married after his birth mother died when Dean was 3—had served as a young volunteer for Herb Brownell, a former New York assemblyman who managed three of Thomas Dewey’s campaigns, and who was later appointed U.S. attorney general by Dwight Eisenhower.

“She was always talking about politics, talking about government, talking about public service, and was just thrilled that my mind worked that way also,” Mr. Skelos said. “She was the first one in my office in the morning, showing newspaper clippings, whether she liked them or didn’t. She’d point out what we should be doing, how we should handle it.”

In 1980, he won his first race for the State Assembly. After just one term, he tried for a State Senate seat but lost to a Democratic incumbent.

He tried again in 1984, when one of his most devoted supporters, U.S. Senator Al D’Amato, arranged for President Ronald Reagan to come to temple in Valley Spring. It was three weeks before the election, and Mr. Skelos made buttons: REAGAN / SKELOS.

He still lost the Democratic-Republican contest, but with more than 7,000 votes on the Conservative Party line, he won with 51 percent of the vote. Mr. Skelos was 36 years old.

He became a lieutenant to the majority leader Ralph Marino—a fellow product of the Nassau machine—until Marino bucked the party establishment and withheld his support for George Pataki in 1994.

In an ensuing coup, Mr. Skelos opposed his former leader and became one of the first public backers of Senator Joseph Bruno, the outspoken upstater with soap-star good looks, who would later name Mr. Skelos his deputy majority leader.

Mr. Skelos established a reputation as a deputy willing to convey members’ concerns to the majority leader, which helped Mr. Skelos succeed Mr. Bruno when he resigned in 2008.

“When [Dean] became leader after Joe stepped down, it was a different atmosphere in that he truly, truly believes that the leadership is trying to build a consensus and representing the various senators,” said Senator John DeFrancisco of Syracuse. “As opposed to maybe what might have been in the past, where a position was developed by the majority leader and it was a matter of everybody else agreeing with that.”

“Dean is very much one of the boys-cigar dinners, golf,” said a former member of the conference. “He’s a member’s member. He’s very effective that way.”

What the Republican conference wants, as much as anything else, is to retain a lock on the majority, which borders on a birthright for many of the members.

On Friday afternoon, Senator Kenneth LaValle of Long Island’s East End opened an interview with The Observer by saying he was doing wonderfully, terrifically, amazingly well.

“It’s good to be back in the majority,” said Mr. LaValle, who was first elected to the Senate in 1976 and, until 2008, had never served in the minority conference. He credited Mr. Skelos for keeping the conference on message during the dark days of the minority.

“He has almost a Vince Lombardi quality, and an assurance that the message is right and he believes in it,” Mr. LaValle said.

But the task could prove more difficult in the majority, where several members must satisfy Democratic-leaning districts if they hope to keep their seats in two years.

Mr. Skelos is sympathetic to those concerns, but also stressed the need for party discipline.

“There has to be open conversations within the conference,” he said. “But also, especially if your numbers are close, there has to be a certain discipline within the conference-that members air their concerns but that you pretty much vote as a conference.”

And some believe his greatest test will come when someone crosses him.

“I don’t know if he read The Prince or lived it,” joked the former member, who recalled Mr. Skelos’ penchant for punishing those who crossed him. “But these are survival skills for him. This is his whole thing. He wakes up and this is it. This is what he’s good at.”

In his first few weeks, Mr. Skelos has been working to ensure his own survival.

He has mended fences with the most roguish of his own members, Senator Greg Ball of the Hudson Valley, whom party leaders so vehemently opposed during the Republican primary that they sent out mailers publicizing an alleged sexual assault.

But Mr. Ball won the primary, and then the general election, and now those days are a distant memory.

He was given the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee, and last Monday Mr. Skelos hosted a fund-raiser in Albany, with tickets ranging from $500 to $10,000, and has another event scheduled for this week in Mr. Ball’s home district.

“I think the relationship is fine,” Mr. Skelos said. “I think he’s thrilled to be part of this conference. He’s an active member within the conference. And he’s made many constructive suggestions in conference, so he’s become part of the team.”

But even as he woos his own members, Mr. Skelos is taking out insurance against the possibility that something might happen.

Settling on the chambers’ rules is an annual argument, but when Democrats were handed this year’s rules, they noticed something different: a provision to strip the lieutenant governor—Mr. Cuomo’s Democratic running mate, Robert Duffy—of the power to cast a tie-breaking vote.