Albany’s New Frontier: What Happens When Senate Democrats Need Republican Votes?

ALBANY—For all their rhetoric about bipartisanship, some State Senate Democrats are making ominous noises about what might happen if they pass a bill re-authorizing mayoral school control–a position supported by Majority Leader Malcolm Smith–on the strength of votes that their Republican colleagues seem willing to provide.

"Clearly, we'll have to cross that divide when we get there," said State Senator Bill Perkins, a vocal opponent of the current system of school governance. "Obviously, it's an ominous development that does not spell unity and, quite the opposite, threatens a precedent that I think is not good at all."

After admitting this week that there was a "split" within the Democratic conference, Smith suggested he would work with Republicans on the issue if needed. It was as much a threat to those who have previously frustrated him as it was a promise. When pressed, he said only that the final solution would have the votes of at least "32 senators." David Paterson, who also generally supports mayoral control, weighed in the next day, saying, "in the Senate, it is important to have bi-partisan support."

And while there appears to be a moderate middle on the issue–many members of the conference are open to allowing the mayor to appoint the majority of members of the Panel for Education Policy, provided there are "tweaks" to allow for more parental involvement and accountability–the members are concerned about what happens if even a compromise bill passes without the support of all the Democrats.

"I'm still holding out hope that all the Democrats will vote together and we'll have Republicans voting as well," State Senator Tom Duane told me after giving a television interview on same-sex marriage. "Really, I much prefer that we have a much more bipartisan voting grid in the Senate. But I think it is always helpful when we all stick together on the Democratic side, but I would be hypocritical if I say that, because I don't particularly want all the Republicans to be always voting also. That's why I'm hoping that we have all the Democrats, and lots of Republicans also."

I asked Duane about the "split," noting that there is now a bill that dilutes the mayor's power.

"I'm not sure if there's a lot of people with hardened positions," he said. I told that State Senator Carl Kruger had basically said it would happen over his dead body.

"Yessss…." Duane replied, his voice betraying a sense of exasperation. "And I, I, I want–I don't want to see that for Carl Kruger, because I'm very fond of Carl Kruger. But you know, just, I think things have a way of working themselves out, and if anyone can get these kinds of things done, it's Malcolm Smith."

There's another interesting subtext here: the same-sex marriage bill championed by both Perkins and Duane will likely not have the support of all 32 Democrats in the chamber. Meaning, there will have to be some Republican votes. I asked both men why there should be a different standard.

"It is possible that we're not going to get every Democrat, but I think that marriage is in a category all its own," Duane said. "It's not just policy, it's not just politics, it's also heart and soul. It's not just head, it's heart and soul."

Perkins played the Bloomberg card.

"This is not coming at the urging of the mayor. Especially a Republican mayor. That makes a difference," he said. I noted that Bloomberg is lobbying for same-sex marriage.

"His role is significantly different in both instances," Perkins said.

I asked Perkins about the seeming hypocrisy of claiming to be capable of governing in a bipartisan way, and then recoiling in horror from the prospect of actually doing so.

"This is a conference that obviously looks to serve in a way that can be as bipartisan and multi-regional as possible. But it all depends upon who we bridge those accomplishments that will to some extent determine how unifying or rupturing the result can be," he said. Albany’s New Frontier: What Happens When Senate Democrats Need Republican Votes?