ALBANY – Prospects for the Democrats taking back full control of the State Senate slipped again Wednesday, as another member of their ranks joined a breakaway group of independent Democrats that run the Senate in a coalition with Republicans.
Sen. Tony Avella, of Queens, said he is joining the Independent Democratic Conference, a move that bolsters not only the group’s power in the chamber, but also gives Republicans some breathing room as they face some potentially tough battles over GOP-held seats in the fall elections.
Avella’s move comes as the 2014 state budget is being put together, a fiscal plan that is crafted without the help, or influence, of lawmakers who sit in the minority, as he did until Wednesday.
Avella becomes the fifth member of the independent Democratic group. In his statement, Avella said he looks forward to joining the independent conference that helped push through the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act and an increase in the minimum wage.
“I look forward to being part of a team that has consistently delivered big results for New Yorkers,” he said.
Avella joined the Senate in 2011 and has languished in the minority, where lawmakers with that status rarely get their names attached to major legislation that gets approved.
Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, D-Bronx, heads the independent group aligned with the Republicans.
Klein has also been angling to help Betty Jean Grant, the minority leader of the Erie County Legislature, to defeat Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy in a primary between two Buffalo Democrats on Sept. 9. Grant has not said she would definitely join Klein’s group if she wins, but given the help that Klein has promised her campaign, political insiders say there is little doubt that she would.
Avella’s move could also make it difficult for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to help the regular Democratic conference in the fall elections. Senate Democrats have privately grumbled for years that Cuomo has done little to help them increase their influence while doing all he can to keep the Republicans at least in partial control of the Senate.
Klein and Senate co-leader Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, run the Senate in an unusual power-sharing arrangement that includes a deal in which either one can, on their own, keep measures the other one might want from reaching the Senate floor. It is an arrangement that has largely worked for both sides, though Klein and his group have been criticized by liberal-leaning groups for not doing more to get certain issues – from social policy to fiscal matters – approved.
“Tony Avella is an independent voice and a straight shooter, and he’ll be an asset to this historic coalition,” Skelos said Wednesday.
“Like us, he understands that New Yorkers don’t want partisanship, finger-pointing or blame. They want Democrats and Republicans to work together to get results.”
In a statement, one Senate Democrat criticized his colleagues for not reaching out to Klein to try to bring him and his breakaway team back to the main party conference – a move that would have removed any Republican control of the Senate.
“To my colleagues in the Democratic conference, I say now that we can really kiss the majority goodbye and, as some of you have wished, we’re going to be in the minority for a long time. I told you so,” wrote Sen. Rubén Díaz, D-Bronx.
But Senate Democrats insist they still have a shot at taking back full control of the Senate after this fall’s elections, a route that will take money they don’t have and help from the Cuomo-led state Democratic Party that has been elusive.
Republicans are already gearing up to try to hold on to two open seats they held on Long Island, and GOP operatives are growing increasingly worried that Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, could be in political trouble this year, especially among conservative voters in his district.
The 63-member Senate breaks down this way: 30 lawmakers sit with the GOP conference, 24 are members of the regular Democratic conference, five belong to the independent conference, two Democrats sit with neither conference, and there two vacancies, one on Long Island and the other in Brooklyn.
One of Wednesday’s winners was Cuomo, who gets a well-timed assurance that the existing power structure that has worked well for him the last three years has a better chance of remaining in power if he gets re-elected this fall.
In a hallway interview, Avella said he felt no political pressure from Democrats not to bolt to the conference.
He also dismissed speculation that his move helps not only the conference, but that the Republicans have a better chance of staying in control come next January after this fall’s elections.
“I don’t think my becoming a member of the IDC affects what happens in the elections. … I know joining the Independent Democratic Conference helps me do my job, and that helps me promote a Democratic agenda,” said Avella, who declined to give a checklist of issues he wants to see addressed now that he jumped ship to the ruling coalition group.
Avella noted the obvious impact of his move to a group with enormous influence over everything from the shape of the budget to the flow of economic-development money.
“I think it helps me provide better for my district,” Avella said, “and helps me move the issues I’ve been working on to represent them, not only for my district, but the entire state.”