ALBANY – 1,786,880.
That’s the number of New Yorkers who are now politically disenfranchised because they do not have full representation in the State Legislature.
Nine vacancies currently exist in the Assembly and two in the Senate. That is the result of representatives departing for other jobs or because of scandals, and their constituents now have one less voice to represent them in Albany during upcoming budget talks.
The number without full representation grew by 269,770 this week with the resignations of Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, a Depew Democrat accused of sexually harassing female staffers, and Assemblyman Eric Stevens, a Bronx Democrat expelled Monday when he was convicted of felony bribery charges.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo so far has declined to call special elections to fill the vacancies, which means the seats could remain empty until next January.
For Western New York, it means one less member to make the case for regional priorities, such as the Common Core education program, tax cuts and job creation proposals.
It means Cheektowaga-area constituents have no Assembly member to help if they have problems with a state agency, from motor vehicle issues to business permits.
And it means taxpayers in Cheektowaga’s school districts – some of the most heavily taxed in the area – have no Assembly member to fight for school aid. In addition, several local groups are expressing concerns about funding for projects they hoped Gabryszak would obtain this year.
“We would like to have the representation during this critical budget time, so we have the representation we need for projects we need to get done,” said Debra Liegl, president of the Cheektowaga Chamber of Commerce.
The decision to fill the 11 legislative seats rests solely with Cuomo. Once he issues a proclamation for a special election, the local contest must be held between 70 and 80 days.
The governor’s office Tuesday pointed to a statement he made last November, when asked on Staten Island about vacancies created in the State Legislature.
“It’s a balance of the cost and the hardship of the election versus the community’s right to representation,” Cuomo said at that time. No plans were made then to call special elections.
Cuomo’s office Tuesday said that statement still stands, even with the 11 vacancies that stretch from Long Island to Erie County.
The governor on Jan. 1 could have called special elections for nine of the 11 vacancies because they occurred when lawmakers resigned from the Legislature on Dec. 31 to take other jobs.
Four of the 11 empty seats are in Brooklyn. “Most of those are black and Latino constituencies, and so that adds more of an urgency for the need to not limit their representation in this 2014 legislative session,” said Sen. Kevin Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat who said he has written Cuomo urging him to immediately call for special elections.
Party leaders choose
There are several theories why no election is being called. One is that county party leaders choose who runs in the special elections, which makes it more likely that the winners of those contests will win in the general election in November.
Last week, State Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, noted the potential timing of special election campaigns occurring in March – as the budget was being negotiated – if Cuomo called for them now. Such a possibility could turn people into “a political mode” at a key time, Skelos said.
“The main thing is, we don’t want to have anything that would disrupt the legislative session,” he said.
Curiously, Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins declined to comment on possible special elections.
“The most important thing is to make sure the people of these districts have representation,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, who heads the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
In the Assembly, where Democrats rule with healthy numbers, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver put the decision at the feet of Cuomo.
“It’s up to the governor under the law to make a declaration” about special elections, Silver said.
Would he advise him to call them?
“I would advise him that he should,” Silver responded.
But he said new lawmakers, given the date now, would not be seated until the end of the budget process.
“And once the budget is enacted, there isn’t a whole lot that will be considered between the budget and the end of the year,” he said.
Gabryszak’s district spreads across Cheektowaga and Lancaster.
Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a Republican whose district includes Lancaster, and Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat who represents Cheektowaga, have both offered special assistance to field constituent calls while Gabryszak’s seat is empty. But their power to influence the Assembly, where Gabryszak’s seat is now empty, is zero.
Does Gallivan have concerns about the Gabryszak seat being vacant?
“If it went on forever, it would be a problem,” he said. “In the short term, I don’t have particular concerns.”
Given the Democratic domination in the Assembly, he noted Gabryszak’s departure won’t affect individual votes on bills in the Assembly. He also said calling a special election could result in the winner running three campaigns – special, primary and general – this year.
But Gallivan acknowledged a more-is-better approach is important when it comes to getting things done in Albany. “When advocating for local issues, the more voices you have, the better,” he said.
Should Cuomo call a special session?
“I think as far as representation goes, symbolically, the answer is yes,” Gallivan responded.
But practically, he wondered how much a new lawmaker could achieve if he or she took office with just a couple months before session ends.
Many local officials in Lancaster, though, are worried about Gabryszak’s funding promises, now that he is gone. One promise was $250,000 for a West Main Street extension project.
“This is an economic development project that needs to continue,” said Jeffrey Stribing, Lancaster village community and economic development director. “I have phone calls in to Albany to make sure this money doesn’t get lost,” Stribing said.
Another project possibly at risk is $16,000 in state aid for the first phase of the Bryce Buchholz skate and bike park.
“I do have concerns about it. If the state doesn’t come through, we’ll have to make up the difference,” said Bill Buchholz, Bryce’s father, on Tuesday. “We’ll have to figure out a way.”
Before Gabryszak resigned, Lancaster School Superintendent Michael Vallely said his office was in talks with the lawmaker about money for improvements to the Hillview Elementary School playground. “We hope those conversations can continue with the state,’’ he said.
News Staff Reporter Karen Robinson contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org