New NY Senate Leader John Flanagan Already Faces Tall Order

With a spate of corruption charges, convictions and two legislative leaders recently toppled by scandal, fixing Albany's political machinery would seem a key priority for John Flanagan, the new leader of the state's Senate.

But with only six weeks left in the legislative session, the Long Island Republican will likely be busy addressing an already long agenda that includes renewing laws governing rent regulations and mayoral control of schools in New York City and a tax credit for real estate developers. Influence peddling around the real estate issues has been at the heart of federal investigations that have yielded the most high-profile charges.

Flanagan underscored the many challenges facing lawmakers in the weeks ahead within moments of his colleagues electing him Senate leader Monday, the same day that former Majority Leader Dean Skelos resigned.

"It's about jobs. It's about taxes. It's about economic development. It's about quality of life. And after that, I think everything can fall into place," Flanagan said.

Flanagan will also have to contend with an upstate-downstate rivalry within the GOP, the Democrats who run the state Assembly, and critics of Albany's insider ways. Most powerful among those critics is U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has called Albany a "cauldron of corruption" and whose office is prosecuting Skelos and former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was arrested in January.

"People watch this in disgust," said Fordham University political scientist Christina Greer. "They may not know the names of all the lawmakers, but they know the byproduct of Albany is a mess, filled with scandals."

Skelos, who is keeping his legislative seat, is the sixth legislative leader to face criminal charges or scandal in Albany since 2008. Authorities arrested Skelos a week ago on charges that he used his position to extort payments for his son, Adam Skelos, who is also charged in the case. Both men say they are innocent.

The resignation came after Democrats vowed to seek a vote to remove Skelos as leader. Skelos initially sought to ride out the political storm, but his support among Senate Republicans steadily eroded.

Flanagan emerged as the new leader after a three-hour, closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans. Sen. John DeFrancisco of Syracuse, who also had contended for the top position, was at Flanagan's side as he announced his victory.

"We come out of this unified," said Flanagan, 54, an attorney and 29-year legislative veteran who had led the Senate education committee. "There is a lot of work that needs to get finished."

At the top of the list are three laws set to expire next month that have huge implications for New York City. One pertains to the city's rent regulations that affect the leases of more than 2 million residents. Another governs a tax break for real estate developers that critics call unnecessary. The third gives New York's mayor control of city schools.

Other items lawmakers are expected to debate before they adjourn in June include a minimum wage hike and the Dream Act, a proposal to extend financial aid to students in the country illegally. Senate Republicans oppose both measures, but Assembly Democrats are likely to keep pushing for them.

The Senate elected Flanagan with a show of 32 hands: all 31 Republicans present and Democrat Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who sits with the GOP. It was the narrowest majority in the 63-seat chamber.

The 24-member Democratic Conference symbolically nominated Democratic Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. The nomination was defeated by a voice vote, as was a nomination for Sen. Jeff Klein, head of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference.

Just before the vote, Flanagan shook hands with DeFrancisco and hugged Skelos.

Skelos, 67, was first elected to the Senate in 1984. He said Monday that he decided to step down to avoid distracting the Senate — and because a photographer last week entered his son's backyard, causing his 2-year-old grandson to fall and split his lip.

"I said, 'You know what, it's not worth it,'" Skelos said.

Authorities say the legislative veteran traded his influence for more than $200,000 in payments to his son from a real estate development firm and an environmental technology company. The money was paid to Adam Skelos with the expectation that Dean Skelos would use his position to support the companies' interests before the state, authorities say. Both have denied wrongdoing.

In January, Silver was charged with accepting nearly $4 million in payoffs. He is keeping his Assembly seat and has pleaded not guilty.

Flanagan is a member of the Long Island Nine, the all-Republican Senate delegation from Suffolk and Nassau counties. Upstate senators initially backed DeFrancisco before going over to Flanagan. The move angered some upstate conservatives.

"Upstate betrayed," tweeted Republican Assemblyman Bill Nojay, whose district lies south of Rochester.

After the vote, Flanagan told the Senate he was mindful of the state's geographic rivalries, saying there are "regional differences that need to be respected."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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