Taking the Lead: A Q&A with Dean Skelos (Part 1)
Taking the Lead: A Q&A with Dean Skelos (Part 1)
With state Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos at the helm, the GOP seized outright control of the Legislature’s upper chamber last fall, despite a concerted effort to help Democrats secure a majority by some of the state’s most powerful political figures.
Senate Republicans, who shared power with the Independent Democratic Conference the past two years, are now expected to be in position to block a slate of progressive bills, from the abortion measure in the Women’s Equality Act to public financing of campaigns, while promoting their agenda of tax cuts, regulatory changes and education reform.
On the last day of 2014, City & State Albany Bureau Chief Jon Lentz spoke with Skelos about his party’s victories during the fall elections and the upcoming 2015 legislative session. The following is the first installment of a multi-part, edited interview.
City & State: How did you win an outright majority in the Senate?
Dean Skelos: Well, the first thing was good Senate candidate selection. We had probably one of the best groups of candidates running that I’ve seen in a long time. And some of them were just not your normal pick coming out of the organization or something—Rich Funke up in Rochester, former news anchor, sports editor, sports commentator—a different type of profile. Sue Serino, a county legislator, not in office a long time but a small business person. Terrence Murphy, same thing, a town councilman in Yorktown, a chiropractor, a small business owner. So it was just different types of people that the communities could relate to. Plus they stayed very focused on message. We stayed focused on job creation and what middle income families are thinking about. The Democrats went a little too far on issues such as taxpayer financing of elections and illegals getting college tuition, things that people either didn’t relate to or just totally disagreed with as being important or right.
C&S: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and various unions came together to push for a Democratic Senate, while Republicans George Maziarz and Greg Ball declined to run for re-election. Did that worry you?
DS: You’re always concerned when there are elections. I’m concerned about my own elections when I’m running. But I did feel that we were right on the issues, we had great candidates, and we were staying focused on what was important and not getting sidetracked by issues that people didn’t think were priorities in their life. And that’s where the Democrats made their mistake. You know, plus Bill de Blasio and some of the other New York City unions coming after us, certainly that did not help in districts out on the island, for example, or in the mid-Hudson and other parts of the state. They did not want to see a New York City takeover of the state government.
C&S: What went through your mind when state Sen. Jeff Klein of the IDC said he would leave you to partner with the mainline Senate Democrats?
DS: I said to Jeff that I thought he was making a mistake. We had Jonathan Soros, we had Bill de Blasio, we had NYSUT, UFT, all these unions, all these different groups coming after us. We stood our ground and we won. Sometimes you just have to stand your ground and you can win.
C&S: What role will the IDC play? Will they have a lessened role—
DS: There is going to be a continuing relationship. It will be different, and we’re going to announce that next week.
C&S: Will it be three men in the room, like it’s been before?
DS: Certainly Jeff Klein is welcome, but that’s going to be the governor’s decision.
C&S: You have seven new members—
DS: Seven new members, yes. Ten new Senate members, of which seven are Republicans. And once again we’ve disproved the fact that we were going to lose the majority because time was catching up to us, and it seems like every two years that’s what they say. But seven out of the 10 are Republicans.
C&S: How have you been able to maintain this bastion of power for Republicans amid growing Democratic enrollment in New York?
DS: When you look at the Senate, my district in the last 12 to 14 years has gone from 12,000 more Republicans to about 15,000 or so more Democrats. But a lot of it when it comes to local elections? I mean, look in the state. We have county executives, I think, in over 30 counties, county legislatures throughout the state, county executives in counties that are Democrat counties. So I think people separate out the party and the candidate that’s running. I mean, Rockland County, overwhelmingly Democrat, a Republican county executive. Westchester County? Rob Astorino. Nassau County, Ed Mangano beat Tom Suozzi, who nobody ever thought would lose. And he was just re-elected with huge numbers. Erie County, I believe we control the county legislature there. We picked up three congressional seats this year, defeating incumbents and there was one retirement. So, people separate out.
I think the challenge that we have as a party is obviously on the statewide races. And that, up to this point, I think tends to be the fact that we’re overwhelmed by New York City. The rest of the state is overwhelmed by New York City. But I don’t run in New York City and all of my other members other than three do not run in New York City. So I think that’s the challenge as a party that we have: to start breaking into the New York City voter that can see us as an alternative. Outside of the city, I think the voters do see us as an alternative. But also, we represent balance—we represent regional balance, we represent political balance. That’s why we’re successful. A person can be a Democrat outside of New York City, but a lot of them do not believe in the philosophy, the ultra-liberal philosophy, of a Bill de Blasio.
C&S: Do you a see an opening in New York City with a liberal mayor like de Blasio?
DS: What it does is it gives you a second look by the voters in the city, but you still have to prove yourself. As a party, we have to reach out more into the minority communities, into the Latino community, which is growing, the African American community, the Asian community, which is growing. And I believe that we will do that. I know that our state party is very aggressively working within the city either with new immigrants or new citizens and others who have been here and just have not been touched by Republicans. I believe that we have to go out and touch all Democrats, independents, and Republicans in the state. And we’re going to do that.