As State Senate Democrats cling to the last vanishing wisps of hope they might gain majority and control the agenda this year, one of their number is preparing to abandon the body and pursue a soon-to-be-vacant seat in the City Council.
Harlem State Senator Bill Perkins revealed to the Observer he intends to run to replace Councilwoman Inez Dickens, who won election to the Assembly earlier this month—a move that could leave Democrats a vital vote short on core issues facing the upper house of the State Legislature. Perkins held that Council seat from 1998 until 2005, and ascended to the State Senate in 2006.
“Count me in,” Perkins said in a phone interview, arguing he could be “more effective” at the local level.
At present, registered Democrats hold 31 seats in the State Senate—one short of a majority—and two Democratic challenges to sitting Republican state senators on Long Island remain unresolved pending recounts. But the party does not enjoy a unified, coherent caucus.
Rather, the main Democratic conference led by Westchester State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins will consist of just 23 members when the legislative session begins next year. Bronx State Senator Jeffrey Klein’s Independent Democratic Conference, which has shared power with the GOP since 2012, will hold seven seats in January after having expanded its ranks this month at the larger conference’s expense.
Finally, Brooklyn State Senator Simcha Felder announced on the television show Capital Tonight on Sunday that he will continue to sit with the Republicans, which he has done since his election in 2012 despite being nominally a Democrat.
Thus Democrats would need to capture both seats on Long Island and convince the IDC to collaborate with them in order to have a one-seat majority in the upper chamber. But since votes on contentious matters like public financing of elections and the DREAM Act—a proposal to extend state tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants—would likely split along party lines, Perkins’ departure would make their passage all-but impossible.
New York City election law requires the mayor to call a special election for Council within three days of a vacancy. The referendum then occurs on a Tuesday a month and a half later.
All sources the Observer spoke with agreed Perkins would be the prohibitive favorite for the Council seat thanks to his name recognition. He would take the Council seat in February, after the leadership vote but before the budget agreement.
It would then fall upon Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call a special election for the State Senate seat. Cuomo has long been loath to hold such races mid-year, preferring to postpone the vote until fall, which he dubiously claims saves money—and which would leave Perkins’ post empty months past the end of the legislative session.
Additionally, though the governor reluctantly supported the Democrats’ effort to take over the State Senate this year, he has long cultivated close ties to the Republican delegation and to the IDC.
Several sources told the Observer Perkins has been unhappy in the State Senate, which requires a grueling commute to Albany six months out of the year, and where he has been locked in the minority much of the past decade. He briefly sought retiring Congressman Charles Rangel‘s seat earlier this year, but dropped out and endorsed the eventual victor: his State Senate colleague, Adriano Espaillat.
Perkins indicated that he would prefer the proximity of City Hall to the drive upstate, and asserted its overwhelmingly Democratic composition would enable him to get more done as lawmaker.
“The Council is closer to home,” Perkins said. “Navigating the Council in terms of legislation and related insititutional opportunities, is a little more effective in terms of the constitution of the body.”
At present, Council salaries are almost double those of state lawmakers.
One of Dickens’ staffers, Troy Outlaw, has filed to run for the seat—and insiders informed the Observer he appears to be the candidate of the Rangel-aligned Harlem old guard, which Assemblyman Keith Wright leads and to which Dickens belongs. Perkins has often clashed with this long-dominant faction, as his short-lived candidacy for Congress and support for Espaillat illustrated.
Wright himself unsuccessfully sought Rangel’s seat with the old congressman’s support, and left Dickens to inherit his place in the State Legislature. Several sources suggested the assemblyman would likely pursue Perkins’ State Senate seat—completing the game of political musical chairs.
Also in the running for Dickens’ slot is Marvin Holland, political director for Transit Workers Union Local 100. TWU backed Espaillat in his two failed primary challenges to Rangel in 2012 and 2014, and in his triumphant bid for the House this summer.
Holland has also retained the Espaillat-linked consulting firm Red Horse, suggesting his candidacy is a bid by the congressman-elect to extend his power over Upper Manhattan. Local community board member Charles Cooper has also professed his hope to succeed Dickens, and he enjoys some backing from clergy.
Perkins admitted he had not considered the impact his run for Council would have on his peers in the State Senate.
“I didn’t really look at it from the perspective that you’re sharing,” he said, though he quickly noted his successor would doubtless be a Democrat.