The new coalition government running New York’s state Senate under Sen. Dean Skelos and Sen. Jeff Klein’s conferences has tongues wagging all across the state. We have no precedent for this precise coalition model in New York State. It is therefore worth a look at what has marked coalition governance in England and Israel.
First, the junior partner in a coalition (in this case Klein’s five-member IDC) achieves an immediate boost in governing influence out of proportion to its numbers. This is especially true since Klein secured “joint and equal authority” over all aspects of the Senate’s business: the active list on bills coming to the floor, budget negotiations, committee appointments and confirmations.
Second, the senior partner (in this case the Senate Republican Conference) does not at first mind sharing power, as they are relieved to be staying in power. But the senior partner can soon chafe, as five will have equal say to the 31 senators sitting in the GOP Conference.
Third, over time the junior partner pays for the expansion of its governing influence with a diminution of its political edge. Nick Clegg’s Liberal Party has seen its poll ratings deteriorate in Great Britain since joining forces with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party in 2010. This is also why the religious parties in Israel tend to drop out of the Likud coalition in the months before newly called elections, striving to regain their independence and dynamism.
Four, if coalitions succumb to the stalemated politics of the lowest common denominator, those who opposed the coalition in the first place, from right and left, can tear away at its fabric.
In brief, coalitions are easier to form than maintain. What can we look forward to over the course of this legislative session and beyond?
For the time being, the public is supportive. Quinnipiac’s December poll showed that 53 percent of voters thought the coalition would produce an effective government. That same poll, however, showed support for Republican-only control of the Senate at a paltry 17 percent, with 31 percent favoring the Democrats and 48 percent favoring a coalition of both parties.
If the coalition proves productive, it should remain popular, but Klein’s group needs to pass a minimum wage hike, reproductive health legislation, environmental protection, and a Dream Act to maintain popularity. If gridlock returns, could IDC members face troublesome Democratic primaries in 2014, endangering their re-election?
Skelos’ conference would benefit in marginal districts during the general election—as each of those measures enjoys great popularity in the polls—but their passage could also trigger dangerous primaries, with the Conservative Party as the fulcrum point for protest. Therein lies the rub. How can the Senate Republicans simultaneously navigate a tricky undertow in their primaries and strong tides in the general election while pulling in opposite directions?
To work, the Senate’s coalition leadership must display an artful political touch. The Senate’s skilled leadership triumvirate of Skelos, Klein and Libous will be repeatedly tested. The new Senate minority leader, Democrat Andrea Stewart-Cousins, will also have ample opportunity to establish her bona fides. She has been underestimated before.
As for the governor, he has been a disciple of Gladstone’s foreign policy precept with the Senate: He has not pursued likes and dislikes, so much as interests. He worked with the Senate Republicans and the IDC to pass on-time budgets and the property tax cap, but he also leveraged support from the Senate Democrats (including the IDC) to move the Republican Senate to enact rent control, tax reform and gay marriage.
If this coalition can’t produce on reproductive health, the Dream Act and marijuana possession, the governor has options. Does anyone doubt that, after the Senate Republicans could not win a majority at the polls in 2012 while guiding reapportionment and with a prohibitive spending advantage, the governor could easily change the dynamic?
If Cuomo recruited strong and well-funded Democratic challenger candidates in 2014, they could be a potent force in upstate and suburban swing districts. Stewart-Cousins and Deputy Minority Leader Michael Gianaris would be wise to nurture that reaction by Cuomo, not allowing their conference’s disappointments to become an enduring cold war with the governor.
I am not counting out coalition governance. Skelos and Klein may be riding the back of the proverbial political tiger, but that doesn’t mean they end up inside it.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political consultant with Corning Place Communications in Albany and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.
Tags: Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Conservative Party, David Cameron, Dean Skelos, Democrat, Dream Act, Gladstone, Independent Democratic Conference, Jeff Klein, Liberal Party, Likud, Marijuana, Michael Gianaris, Nick Clegg, Quinnipiac, Republican, Tom Libous