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

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.”

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