John Sampson could almost taste a Democratic victory.
In the midafternoon on Election Day, the Senate minority leader was running late to join state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. at a school in Ozone Park, Queens.
While Sampson hurried to join him, Addabbo was telling voters, many of whom had lost their homes and cast their ballots in frigid, dusty conditions, that it didn’t matter who ended up running the state Senate. After Superstorm Sandy ravaged his district, the Queens lawmaker had suspended his campaign against Republican Councilman Eric Ulrich to focus on helping constituents.
“I hope the majority, Republicans or Democrats, do the right thing by the state,” Addabbo said. “Enough of this talk of who’s in the majority, who has the bigger office or larger computers. We have to do our part as legislators and do the will of the people.”
But the talk of which party would wind up in the majority had only just begun. When Sampson showed up, he said Addabbo’s race was crucial to the party’s hope of seizing control of the chamber from Republicans.
“All roads to the majority lead through Addabbo,” Sampson said. “Joe doesn’t take anything for granted, and that’s why he works so hard. He started working on day one when he was elected to office.”
As results from across the state trickled in late that night, Sampson, Addabbo and the rest of their colleagues seemed poised to tip the balance of power in Albany for the second time in four years.
Addabbo and Democratic Assemblyman George Latimer defended two downstate seats that Republicans had hoped to poach. Ted O’Brien, a county legislator, upended Republican Assemblyman Sean Hanna in an open, previously Republican-controlled seat in Rochester.
Additionally, Democrats hold narrow leads in two other pivotal races still too close to call. In the Hudson Valley Democrat Cecilia Tkaczyk narrowly leads Republican Assemblyman George Amedore Jr. by about 140 votes as City & State goes to press, and in Poughkeepsie Democrat Terry Gipson is about 1,600 votes ahead of Republican state Sen. Stephen Saland.
And former Councilman Simcha Felder, a Democrat, pummeled Republican state Sen. David Storobin in the so-called “super Jewish” district.
But Sampson might not be able to savor his party’s triumph.
Some political observers believe that Sampson will either step down or be ousted as the party’s leader regardless of the recounts and the final vote tallies.
If that happens, state Sen. Michael Gianaris, who heads the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, is widely viewed as a contender for majority leader if Democrats retake the Senate.
Gianaris deflected questions about the majority leader job on Election Night, but promised that Democrats would not engage in a messy leadership fight like they had four years ago.
“I’m not getting into that today,” he said. “The entire Democratic conference is joined at the hip tonight in celebration of retaking the majority. We’re not going to repeat the mistakes of the past, and we’re going to be working together in a unified fashion to give New Yorkers a responsible government.”
But the path to majority leader for Gianaris is complicated by divisions between him and Sen. Jeff Klein, the chair of the four-person Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group that has cooperated with Republicans over the past two years.
In a major question mark hanging over control of the Senate, Klein has not indicated whether his cohort would caucus with the Democrats. Sources believe he may seek the majority leader position too. An IDC spokesman declined to answer questions about the lawmaker’s leadership interests.
Felder could also become a key vote among Democrats if the party is able to claim 32 seats or more. Counting Felder and the IDC, Democrats currently hold 31 seats and the GOP 30 in a chamber that will expand to 63 seats next session.
But Felder, despite his party affiliation, has left open the possibility of caucusing with the Republicans. E. O’Brien Murray, a Republican who managed Felder’s campaign, said it was too early to say which party the senator-elect would work with.
“He made it clear he’d work with senators from any party at this point, but basically it would be incumbent upon which party is best for his district,” Murray said. “Simcha Felder just won a seat with 67 percent of the vote. That puts him in a very strong position in any situation. In a tight Senate, that just makes it a little more powerful.”
Democratic leaders insist that they can lure Felder to their side.
“Simcha is a Democrat,” Sampson said. “He believes in a lot of issues we believe in.”
In addition to Klein and Gianaris, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson and even Sen. Liz Krueger are rumored to be possible successors to Sampson. A Democratic political consultant said that if Stewart-Cousins wants the job, she would be a “strong unifying force” for the party.
“As an African-American, but also as somebody in a suburban district, she could bridge the gap between city and noncity senators and create a little more consensus in a very fractious conference,” the source said.
Despite all the excitement among Democrats, Senate Republicans aren’t conceding defeat just yet.
“There are several races that are too close to call, and there are thousands of absentee ballots out,” said Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. “It is premature. What we have said is when all of the votes are counted … we’re going to be in the majority.”
Reif maintained that he was “very confident” that Amedore would emerge victorious, citing an “aggressive absentee ballot program.” He also blamed several of the GOP’s losses on factors outside the party’s control.
“You had another historic turnout at the top of the ticket for Democrats, and the hurricane didn’t help,” he said. “Essentially there was no campaigning in those two seats for roughly the last nine days of the campaign.”
There are already whispers that if the Republicans fail to hold onto their slim majority after all the ballots are counted in the next few weeks, Skelos could be out too.
A top GOP consultant who asked to remain nameless speculated that Skelos would be ousted for his failure to sound the alarm about seats like Saland’s, which the conference had depicted as rock-solid, and the incompetent drawing of the lines in the added 63rd district, which was supposed to be tailored specifically for Amedore to cruise to victory.
Sen. John DeFrancisco and Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous are possible replacements, the source said, with Libous the less likely of the two because of ongoing ethics charges against him and the perception that he is too close to Skelos.
But Bill O’Reilly, a Republican political consultant who worked on Bob Cohen’s unsuccessful campaign against Latimer, said he expects Skelos to keep his leadership position.
“I think everybody is satisfied with Dean, and I think nobody would second-guess what he did during the elections,” O’Reilly said. “He did everything he could to maintain the majority. And he still may have. We’ll see with the recounts.”
Control of the state Senate may not be certain until the holiday season approaches. Pols say that whatever happens, lawmakers will work with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to continue dealing with the aftermath of the hurricane and tackle other issues.
“Everybody wants to roll up their sleeves and do what’s right for New Yorkers and New York,” said Stewart-Cousins, who declined to comment on her chances of being the next Senate majority leader. “It’s certainly what Democrats want to do, and the governor wants to do that. I don’t see why that won’t happen.”
Tags: Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Andrew Cuomo, Bill O'Reilly, Bob Cohen, Cecilia Tkaczyk, David Storobin, Dean Skelos, E O'Brien Murray, Eric Ulrich, george amedore, George Latimer, Independent Democratic Conference, Jeff Klein, John DeFrancisco, John Sampson, Joseph Addabbo, Liz Krueger, Michael Gianaris, Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Scott Reif, Sean Hanna, simcha felder, Stephen Saland, Ted O'Brien, Terry Gipson, Tom Libous