How can voter-rich Long Island maintain its political influence in a State Senate chamber that will have an overwhelming number of New York City legislators next year? It will be a challenge that the Senate’s new Democratic leadership will need to master, or their majority will be at risk in the next election cycle.
Elected, in part, as a response to President Trump’s political agenda, a new class of progressive state lawmakers is expected to make good on campaign pledges made to an active and engaged liberal base. Their Democratic colleagues in the Assembly will follow suit, and together they have the power to redraw the political landscape, starting with their own five boroughs.
But if past is prologue, the Senate Democratic conference will need to proceed thoughtfully, because when its party held the majority eight years ago, it approved legislation viewed by many Long Islanders as openly hostile acts, such as the MTA payroll tax. That strategy ultimately cost Democratic Long Island Senators Craig Johnson and Brian Foley their seats and the Democrats their Albany majority in that chamber.
What was demonstrated then, and remains a political fact of life, is that no political party can afford to alienate the Long Island voter, or those in the rapidly growing suburbs that are spreading north of Westchester and into the Hudson Valley. Savvy statewide candidates have long known that simple first rule of politics: You have to know how to count, which means Long Island can’t be ignored.
In recognition of the Island’s wariness about New York City’s political agenda, the emerging State Senate delegation from Nassau and Suffolk counties should move to create a suburban State Senate caucus that would act as a potent counterbalance to the considerable influence of Gotham’s delegation. Such a conference could be chaired by Sen. Todd Kaminsky of Long Beach, who will become Long Island’s go-to lawmaker in a Democratically controlled chamber. His colleagues would include Long Island Senators John Brooks, Jim Gaughran, Anna Kaplan, Monica Martinez and Kevin Thomas as well as suburban senators in the Hudson Valley region, including David Carlucci, Pete Harckham, Shelley Mayer and James Skoufis. To ensure a broad geographic reach, include Buffalo Sen. Ted Kennedy.
If the caucus were to exclusively comprise Democrats, it would form a bloc of 10 suburban votes, which, in a 40-member majority, would be large enough to lobby leadership to ensure that the suburbs receive their fair share of state aid for everything from transportation to sewers. If the suburban conference worked across party lines, the remaining three Long Island Republican state senators would create a unified voting bloc whose concerns and regional agenda would have to be addressed.
These types of caucuses are not unique, as evidenced by the dozens that exist in the U.S. House of Representatives, with names and missions ranging from the Candy Caucus to the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group whose vice chair, Rep. Tom Suozzi, will now find himself with plenty of problems to solve as a member of the new majority.
For Long Island, a State Senate caucus tailored to address the regional concerns of the suburbs would signify a political coming of age, and make it clear that our issues are not ancillary to those of neighboring New York City, and that one-party rule in Albany doesn’t mean we will march in lockstep to another region’s dominance. This caucus could ensure that Long Island receives its fair share of school aid, make sure the Long Island Rail Road and our region’s infrastructure get their fair share of state funding and, most important, make the 2 percent property-tax cap, possibly one of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s greatest accomplishments for Long Island taxpayers, a permanent mandate.
There is recognition on both sides of the political aisle that New York state has entered new and unchartered territory. A suburban State Senate caucus would go a long way in establishing clear and unequivocal public policy that an important and dynamic part of the state will insist on if elected officials expect our vote next Election Day.
Kyle Strober is executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island.