ALBANY – Leaders of the new coalition-led State Senate met in public for the first time Monday to promote a joint effort to help downstate communities rebuild in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, a Republican whose Nassau County district was hit hard by the storm, and Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, a Bronx Democrat, used the public gathering in the Rockaways in Queens to insist that their coalition idea will work and to try to beat back growing criticism among minority lawmakers that last week’s deal will deny influence to African-American and Latino legislators.
“This coalition is not an exclusive club. It’s open to anyone, Democrat or Republican, who’s serious about governing,” Klein said.
Black and Latino senators have expressed concern that the deal by Republicans – who did not win enough seats in last month’s elections to hold on to the majority on their own – with Klein’s Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, blocked the chance for minorities in the main Senate Democratic Conference to assume power.
The breakaway group was composed of four white lawmakers until a black Democratic senator, Malcolm A. Smith of Queens, joined on the same day the coalition deal was announced last week. The Senate Republicans have no black or Latino lawmakers.
The Monday gathering came in advance of today’s meeting at the Capitol – behind closed doors – by Senate Republicans, the first since Skelos cut his agreement with Klein. Officials said that the meeting is to consider legislative priorities for the coming session but that it will most assuredly include the first group discussion about how the GOP effort with the small band of Democrats will, practically speaking, play out for everything from leadership posts to how legislation will get to the floor for consideration.
Klein, in the Monday session with reporters in Queens that Skelos also attended, insisted that the new coalition will consider the needs of all communities in the state. He said minority residents of New York will be helped by the IDC’s push, for instance, to raise the minimum wage.
Klein said no decisions about leadership positions have been made between him and Skelos, though Skelos recently said in an interview that Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton, will remain as deputy majority leader and that John A. DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, will stay as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee come January.
“We’ve learned from the past as to what we should do to avoid dysfunction,” Skelos said Monday. Skelos said he and Klein have “looked each other in the eyes,” and they agree that the coalition plan will work.
“Bipartisanship, moving this state forward, is going to happen,” Skelos said.
Smith and Sen. Andrew J. Lanza, R-Staten Island, will serve as co-chairmen of the new Senate task force on the Sandy reconstruction efforts.