Majority control is up for grabs
KEY SENATE RACES
It takes 32 seats to win a majority in the 63-seat state Senate, and Democrats and Republicans are closely divided. A few key races will determine the power structure. Here are some of them.
55 th District: Sen. Ted O’Brien, D-Irondequoit, is seeking a second term against Republican Rich Funke, a retired TV anchorman. O’Brien won an open seat in 2012 after Sen. James Alesi, R-Perinton, didn’t seek another term in a district that runs from the city of Rochester into northern Ontario County.
40th District: It’s an open seat being vacated by Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, Putnam County. It’s a battleground district that stretches across Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties. Democrat Justin Wagner, who narrowly lost to Ball in 2012, faces Republican Terrence Murphy, a Yorktown councilman.
41 st District: Sen. Terry Gipson, D-Rhinebeck, Dutchess County, is seeking a second term against Republican Sue Serino, a Dutchess County legislator. The seat had long been held by Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, but Gipson beat him in a three-way race in 2012 in a district that runs across Putnam and Dutchess counties.
46 th District: Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, Schenectady County, faces a rematch against Republican George Amedore, a former state assemblyman. Tkaczyk won by eight votes in 2012. The district covers the Albany area and into Ulster County.
Albany bureau chief
ALBANY — While all statewide races will be on the ballot Nov. 4, the key races for the state Senate will likely have the biggest impact on state policy over the next two years.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a large lead against Republican opponent Rob Astorino in his re-election bid. So about a half-dozen Senate races may determine the fate of issues such as a higher minimum wage, public financing of campaigns and abortion rights in New York.
It’s why Republicans and Democrats are waging an expensive and aggressive battle in races in the Rochester area, the Hudson Valley and Long Island.
Business groups, including the powerful real-estate board in New York City, are pouring money into Republicans’ campaigns. Liberal Democrats like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are pressing for Democratic control of the closely divided, 63-seat Senate.
“We will elect a Democratic progressive Senate that’s focused on changing people’s lives at their roots,” de Blasio said at a campaign rally last week in Manhattan.
The Senate campaigns have offered stark contrasts as recent polls showed Republicans leading in the swing races.
Republicans are opposed to a measure in a 10-point Women’s Equality Act that would strengthen abortion rights, saying it would allow for more abortions. They’ve blasted Democrats for holding up the other pieces of the act, which includes stronger workplace protections for women.
“New York is already the abortion capital of the world,” a radio ad from the pro-life Chiaroscuro PAC states. “Do we really need more abortions at nine months?”
Democrats have contended that the measure would simply codify Roe vs. Wade into state law and wouldn’t lead to more abortions.
“New Yorkers understand and trust women with their own health care,” Tracey Brooks, president of Planned Parenthood Advocates of New York, said in a statement Sept. 24.
The races also are about regional divides. Senate Democrats are mainly from New York City and its northern suburbs, while Republicans are largely from upstate and Long Island.
Republicans have charged that if Democrats win the Senate, New York City Democrats would likely control all branches of state government. Democrats hold a wide majority in the Assembly.
Democrats argue that Republicans have run the Senate for most of the last half century, but upstate — and working families — continue to struggle. Democrats want to increase the minimum wage from $8 an hour to at least $10.10 an hour and enact a statewide system of public funding of campaigns. Republicans have resisted both measures and have promoted a record of fiscal austerity.
Republicans have had a tenuous hold on the Senate after losing the majority in 2008. They won it back in 2010; lost it again in 2012, but kept power by sharing the majority with four Democrats. It takes 32 seats to win the majority.
Cuomo in May abandoned his close relationship with Senate Republicans. Instead, he sided with the union-backed Working Families Party to win its endorsement, pledging to work to oust Republicans from power in the November elections.
The Democratic governor has faced questions about how much he will help his own party because he’s benefited from the work with the Senate GOP, allowing him to tout his ability to reach across the aisle.
But Cuomo said he’ll aid Democrats, and the state party — funded by Cuomo’s campaign cash — will pump $1 million into tight contests.
“A lot of our campaign materials we’re doing we’re doing together to help Democratic candidates across the state,” Cuomo told reporters Wednesday. “And I’ll be campaigning” for them.
A new majority
For Republicans to have a majority, they would need to keep the current 30 seats they won in 2012, retain Democratic Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn in their conference and win one seat.
There are four open seats, and 13 upstate senators are running unopposed — including Republican Sens. Joseph Robach, Michael Nozzolio, Thomas O’Mara and John Bonacic.
There are some other intriguing races. Democratic Sen. John Sampson, D-Brooklyn, and Sen. Thomas Libous, RBinghamton, are under federal indictment in separate incidents. Both are expected to win re-election: Sampson faces only third-party candidates; Libous, accused of lying to the FBI, faces Democrat Anndrea Starzak, the former town of Vestal supervisor.
Five Siena College polls in recent weeks showed Republicans with doubledigit leads in the most heavily watched races, including two on Long Island.
Republican Rich Funke had a 25 percentage- point lead, 57 percent to 32 percent, over Sen. Ted O’Brien, D-Irondequoit. Republican Sue Serino led Sen. Terry Gipson, D-Rhinebeck, Dutchess County, 52 percent to 40 percent. Republican George Amedore led Sen. Cecilia Tkaczyk, D-Duanesburg, Schenectady County, by 10 percentage points.
Republicans “have spent enough in these early races to change the karma and the perception,” said Bruce Gyory, an Albany-based Democratic consultant not affiliated with any campaign. “Does that mean the game is over? No. You don’t call a football game at halftime, but you always like being ahead.”
The parties, meanwhile, were spending heavily in another race: the open seat to succeed Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, Putnam County.
Key Rochester race
O’Brien said he doesn’t believe he’s the underdog against Funke, who is well known for his 30-year-career as a TV reporter and anchor.
Two years ago, an early Siena poll showed O’Brien was losing, and he easily won his first term. He criticized Funke for not doing more public events with him.
“People know him as a TV personal-ity,” said O’Brien, 57. “They don’t know really where he is on the issues that are important to people here.”
Funke said there are a number of events planned with O’Brien, and he plans to participate in at least one television debate.
Funke, 65, said after spending decades at community events as a TV personality, he’s heard people’s concerns about the state’s future and wanted to try to improve it.
“You’ve got two options in life: Sit on the sidelines and complain about what’s going on in your state or jump in feet first and try to do something about it,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve elected to do.”
Hudson Valley races
Senate Republicans spent $350,000 on the GOP candidate in the race, Yorktown Councilman Terrence Murphy — the most on any of its candidates. Senate Democrats dropped $94,000 on its candidate, Justin Wagner. The district stretches across Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties.
Wagner, who narrowly lost to Ball in 2012, called Murphy a “nice guy, but fairly right wing.”
“I think the voters quite frankly are sick of politics as usual,” said Wagner, 33, a lawyer.
Murphy said Wagner is “as left as left comes,” saying the district wants a more conservative voice in Albany. Ball was recently named the most conservative senator in the state.
“I’ve been a pro-business candidate,” said Murphy, 48, a chiropractor. “We have the highest property taxes in the United States.”
In a neighboring race, Gipson is trying to win a second term in a traditionally Republican district that runs across Dutchess and Putnam counties.
Gipson has knocked Serino for his opposition to the abortion piece of the Women’s Equality Act and for voting for an energy tax increase as a Dutchess County legislator.
On Thursday, he knocked Serino for a radio interview in which she said more money for schools is an unfunded mandate she’d like to change.
“Once the public really begins to understand how unqualified my opponent is, they’ll begin to see that we’re the only clear choice,” said Gipson, 51.
Serino said Gipson has failed the district, saying it doesn’t get back enough school aid and is overlooked at the Capitol. She said she voted against the energy tax as a standalone piece of legislation, but voted for the county budget that included the tax to ensure that the county maintained services.
Voters “know that I have their back,” said Serino, 53. “I’m here to protect the taxpayer, and I don’t think we’ve had true representation for our community.”