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3rd December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 3, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

This has been a bad year for New York State’s Republican Party, and it could still get worse. Nobody expected President Bush to turn the state from blue to red, and no effort was made toward that end.This is a result of strategic winner-take-all politics that limits national campaign efforts to just a handful of “swing” states.

The Republican effort to defeat Senator Schumer was an embarrassment.This was a seat held by Republicans for generations. The least that the Grand Old Party owed New Yorkers was to try to run a competitive race.But the worst losses came to the Republicans in the State Senate. And those losses were largely self-inflicted.
Republicans started off the year with what seemed to be an unassailable 14-vote spread in the Senate. But 14 votes means that only seven seats have to change hands to force a tie. Democrats were looking to win a majority by the end of the decade. They are now ahead of schedule. Even a tie would put control of the Senate in the hands of the party of whoever is lieutenant governor,elected with the governor.I don’t know anyone who doesn’t believe that New York’s next governor is more than likely to be a Democrat, which is another reflection of the condition of Republicans in the state.

That,in any event,is why the gains made by Democrats this year seem so significant. They have already picked up three seats,and may yet pick up a fourth.That would cut the spread to six from 14. The one seat still in play is the one held by Senator Nicholas Spano,a Republican of Yonkers.Currently ahead by a handful of votes, Mr. Spano could still lose his seat to Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democratic member of the Westchester County legislature. As the recount draws to a close, Mr. Spano is ahead is ahead by just over 100 votes. This election appears headed for the courts.

Mr.Spano has no one to blame his predicament on but himself. During the summer, as his Democratic opponent actively campaigned and gained traction, Mr. Spano, who represents the 35th District based in Yonkers,was busy interfering in the neighboring 34th District.The bottom line of how Mr.Spano spent his summer vacation may well be his party’s loss of two of possibly four seats to Democrats.

The 34th District is the seat once held by Senator Velella, who was forced to vacate his seat following his conviction on corruption charges.This is a tough seat for the GOP to hold,given a two-toone Democratic advantage. That is why the Majority Leader, Senator Bruno, backed a nominal Democrat, Assemblyman Stephen Kaufman, for the Republican line in the Senate district in the Bronx. Mr. Kaufman was among the Assembly’s most moderate Democrats, repeatedly elected with Conservative Party support.He supports the death penalty, voted to restrict partial birth abortion, and is in favor of parental notification. Mr. Kaufman agreed to caucus with the Republicans.

But Mr. Spano was looking for more. He didn’t just want another Republican shoring up the majority, he wanted that Republican to be in his pocket.With Mr. Bruno widely expected to retire sooner rather than later,Mr.Spano was looking to put in place a Republican committed to his potential candidacy to replace Mr. Bruno as leader up the road.

Mr. Kaufman, not even a Republican yet, felt it would be a bit premature, perhaps even disloyal to his patron, Mr. Bruno, to come down on the choice of who would succeed the Republican leader. So Mr. Spano quietly became the moving force behind the candidacy of John Fleming,who defeated Mr. Kaufman in the Republican primary.Mr.Fleming’s September victory sealed the fate of the Republicans in November, who forgot that in order to win in districts with huge Democratic advantages, you need candidates who can win Democratic votes.

Mr.Fleming,a retired New York City Police detective who served on Mayor Giuliani’s security detail, was incapable of broadening his base among Democrats. Mr. Kaufman, who also appeared on the Independence and Conservative Party lines, had a better chance to pull away enough Velella Democrats to defeat Assemblyman Jeffery Klein.

Ironically, Mr. Spano has thwarted his own ambitions. He surely will not become Majority Leader if he is defeated, and even if he wins will become the top target of Democrats in the 2006 election. This kind of shaky ground is not a firm base upon which to build support for legislative leadership.

So the Republicans may lose Mr. Spano’s seat, and have lost the Velella seat that could have been won if Mr.Kaufman had been the GOP candidate.

Considering that one of the other two seats lost was actually a seat “lent”to Republicans by a disaffected Democrat in East Harlem, and was never expected to be permanently retained by the GOP, and the other “pick-up” resulted from a Republican split upstate,the Democratic victory appears more like a disaster inflicted by Republicans on themselves. Rather than congratulating themselves, Democrats should thank their main benefactor from across the aisle — the slightly too ambitious Yonkers State Senator, Nicholas “Me Before the Party” Spano.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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