The Importance of the New York Senate

The New York State Senate is probably the most important legislative chamber that's up for grabs in November's elections, although not for the reason that ...
by | March 26, 2008

The New York State Senate is probably the most important legislative chamber that's up for grabs in November's elections, although not for the reason that most people think.

The Senate is the last bastion of Republican control in New York. The G.O.P. has held a majority in the body since the Lyndon Johnson administration, but their advantage is down to 32-30. All 62 seats are up in November.

The reason most political observers care about the New York Senate is congressional redistricting. With the Senate in their hands, Democrats would be in complete control of redistricting in the nation's third most populous state.

However, I'm skeptical that outcome would really alter the congressional balance of power. Democrats already hold a laughably lopsided 23-6 edge in the state's congressional delegation. Unless every district stretches from Manhattan to Niagara Falls, can the Democrats really redistrict there way into bigger gains (without jeopardizing seats they already hold)? You can't get turnip juice from a bloodhound.

The real significance of a Democratic State Senate might have more to do with policy than politics. With it, the Empire State would rival California as a focal point for progressive policy experimentation. One example: gay marriage.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, same-sex marriage bills are close to winning legislative approval in several states -- probably closer than most people realize. In particular, gay marriage stands a chance of becoming law over the next few years in Vermont, New Jersey, California and, yes, New York.

New Gov. David Patterson favors the idea, as did Eliot Spitzer before him. The Assembly, with its Democratic majority, voted 85-61 for a gay marriage bill last year. In fact, it's possible (though unlikely) that a majority of the Senate already is in favor too.

Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay rights group, has a handy scorecard of New York legislators. Twenty senators support gay marriage and twenty-nine oppose it, with the views of the other thirteen unknown.

The reason there are so many unknowns, however, is that Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno won't allow the issue to come up for a vote. A Democratic leader in the Senate probably would.

Of course, if the Democrats controlled the Senate with a narrow majority and if those unknowns split evenly between the two camps, the gay marriage bill probably wouldn't pass. But, remember, the Democrats would be in complete control of legislative redistricting.

Chances are, with Democrats drawing the districts, the New York Senate would look more like that lopsided congressional delegation or like the Assembly, where Democrats have a 108-42 edge. With that type of Democratic edge, the Senate would probably be inclined to pass a gay marriage bill.

This is, of course, highly speculative. The new legislative lines wouldn't go into effect until the 2012 elections, so this theoretical Democrat-dominated New York legislature won't take office until 2013. Anyone could be governor of New York by then.

The bigger point, though, is that if the Democrats can finally take the Senate and hold it until after the 2010 elections, it won't matter if their majority is only a single vote. After they finally break through in Southern legislatures, Republicans have tended to expand their majorities over the next few cycles.

Thanks to redistricting, the same would probably happen for Democrats in New York. That dynamic means that if Democrats can win the New York Senate this year or in 2010, they'll probably have won it for the foreseeable future.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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