On Monday afternoon, inside his office on the third floor of the State Capitol, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, Dean Skelos, sat in a high-backed red leather chair and talked about the strangeness of being allied, at least in theory, with the Democratic Governor, Andrew Cuomo.
“We do have a unique situation, with a Democrat governor that is singing our song,” said Mr. Skelos, whose yellow tie set off his perpetually tanned skin and silver wave of hair. “He seems to be partnering with us, with our message.”
Sitting on his desk was a copy of The Man Who Saved New York, the biography of Hugh Carey, which Mr. Cuomo has been sending around to labor leaders as a cautionary tale of the state’s fiscal predicament. (Mr. Skelos said it was a gift from Mr. Carey’s son, and that he had yet to start.)
But, for all the outward signs of an alliance with Mr. Cuomo, Dean Skelos is also on the spot.
Because of an accident of history, he and his Republican conference in the New York State Senate have been handed back the majority position they lost in 2008, when most observers thought their aggressively gerrymandered map had finally run its course.
Now, all of a sudden, Mr. Skelos finds himself in a defensive position on a number of big battles.
His Long Island colleagues want him to stand in the way of Mr. Cuomo’s proposed reductions to local education aid, and an upstate bloc wants to guard against prison closures, even as the governor presses for deep cuts.
The famously recalcitrant Democratic Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, has unexpectedly pivoted on ethics reform, leaving Mr. Skelos as the odd man out.
And, in perhaps the most complicated of his problems, Mr. Skelos has previously pledged to hand off redistricting-the single biggest prize of his current 32-30 majority—to an independent commission, as part of a campaign pledge to former mayor Ed Koch.
In his office, Mr. Skelos furrowed his brow, but otherwise seemed relaxed talking about the political battles to come, and his lifelong ascent to the majority leader’s perch.
“I like the competitiveness of it, I like campaigns,” he said. “I enjoy strategizing. And I’ve been very lucky that things have worked out for me.”
Never luckier, perhaps, than in November, when his Republican conference scraped together enough districts—winning by just 500 votes in a heavily-Democratic Buffalo district, and by 400 votes in another district on Long Island—to reinstall Mr. Skelos as majority leader.
The win thwarted Democratic hopes of retaining all the levers of power, and effectively means that anyone who hopes to accomplish something in Albany over the next two years—same-sex marriage, rent regulations, independent redistricting—will have to convince Mr. Skelos and his rural upstate conference.
On Monday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg—who helped Republicans recapture the Senate with some sizable contributions-had come calling on just such an errand, lobbying for more funding and less mandates for New York City.
Mr. Skelos called it “a good meeting,” but he sounded unmoved. “His concerns are the same as concerns of school districts on Long Island, and upstate communities throughout the state,” Mr. Skelos said.
The big wild card in how Mr. Skelos will make out in this session is Mr. Cuomo, who has embraced the Republican message of fiscal restraint, and initially sought out Mr. Skelos as an ally against Speaker Silver in a very public battle against government excess.
Four Democratic senators followed Mr. Cuomo’s lead, forming the breakaway Independent Democratic Caucus that has lent a bipartisan sheen to Mr. Skelos’ maneuvering in the Senate, and provided him a measure of insurance for his razor-thin majority.
The question is whether this coalition of convenience between the governor, the Senate Republicans and the Senate not-Democrats will withstand the fact that Mr. Skelos now finds himself in the position of a human shield, held up by his suddenly empowered members to ward off the governor’s attempts to deliver some of his promised reforms.
After the budget is done, Mr. Skelos will come under pressure from powerful players, starting with national party leaders salivating over the majority leader’s role in New York’s redistricting, which will shape not only the contours of power in Albany but also the state’s representation in what could be a closely divided Congress.
Representative Peter King, a Nassau County Republican and a longtime friend of Mr. Skelos, predicted he would hold up fine.
“Dean will be a major player in Washington. I’m very sure he’ll be coming to Washington a number of times to meet with the Republican leadership. And they’ll be coming to him.”
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.
“This isn’t that hard to read,” said Democratic Senator Liz Krueger of the decision to suddenly revisit the long-standing interpretation of the state’s constitution. “This is Dean, who is the existing majority leader, not wanting to find himself in a 31-31 situation, where somebody calls for the new vote on majority leader and he might not have the 32 votes.”
Mr. Skelos argued for it as a matter of legislative prerogative.
“The majority leader should be elected by the members, should not be elected by the executive branch,” he said. “That’s part of the separation of powers. Why should Andrew Cuomo or George Pataki, when he was governor, through their lieutenant governor make a determination that if 31-31 ever came who should be the leader of that chamber?”
Republicans passed the measure unanimously, and even added four extra votes-from the Independent Democratic Caucus.
No one is quite sure how long the IDC will play into Mr. Skelos’ hands, or for how long.
At a press conference on Monday afternoon-held in an upstairs corridor, while the Republicans and loyal Democrats were meeting in conference-the nascent effort still felt slapdash. A laminated state seal slid a few inches down the podium, and twice the floodlights and microphone cut out.
During the question-and-answer session, the group agreed with Mr. Skelos on the question of the lieutenant governor, but also gently pressed him on ethics reform.
“Clearly, one of the things the IDC is committed to that’s part of our platform is ethics reform,” said the group’s leader, Senator Jeff Klein. “We need a strong ethics law and I’m hopeful that Senator Skelos, the governor, as well as speaker Sheldon Silver can agree on something and have that passed quickly.”
Mr. Klein rejected the notion that the separatist Democrats were currying favor with the other side’s majority leader, but some of their colleagues see it more cynically.
Mr. Skelos riled the Democrat conference, and provoked charges of racism, when he rearranged the seating on the minority side to accommodate the four rogue Democrats, and gave them plum office assignments at the expense of some of their more senior Democratic colleagues.
The Independent Democrats also got committee chairs, which come with power, and a stipend.
“The others never asked,” Mr. Skelos explained. And if they did?
“Now I’ve filled up all the committees. But they never asked. This group asked,” he said.
“I was told of their intentions after they had made up their minds,” Mr. Skelos explained. “Certainly as the leader, it’s my responsibility to make sure they’re being treated fairly in terms of resources and staffing and legislation, and I intend to continue to do that.”
But the trickiest part of Mr. Skelos’ job will be redistricting.
During the fall elections, Ed Koch—pushing a plan for nonpartisan redistricting-called Mr. Skelos to pitch him on being a “Hero of Reform.”
Mr. Koch allayed some of his concerns about a previous bill, and Mr. Skelos agreed to sign on.
“He said, ‘Don’t make it public today, let me talk to my caucus,’” Mr. Koch recalled. “He calls me back within the hour: ‘I alerted my caucus and they’re all joining me.’”
It was a departure for Mr. Skelos, who chaired the Senate’s redistricting commission in both 1992 and 2002, and helped engineer the majority over which he presides.
“He directed the redistricting equivalent of the Night of the Long Knives the last time they did this,” said Blair Horner, the legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. Mr. Horner said it was hard to know exactly how it happened, since the commissions operate in secret, but “at the end of the day, the Senate Republican incumbents were protected and the Senate Democrats got screwed.”
But Mr. Skelos’ official position is that the same mantra Republicans rode to power in 2010—less taxes, less spending, more private jobs—will resonate even more forcefully in 2012.
“When we go through this budget process and they see that we listen to what the public is saying in terms of taxes and spending, we’re going to get reelected and we’re going to grow our majority,” Mr. Skelos said.
Regardless of how the lines are drawn?
“We’re just going to grow our majority,” he said.