Change is coming to the state legislature. The congressional midterm elections and the gubernatorial race have overshadowed the changes facing a state legislature considered moribund by its many critics. So far, more than fifty state legislators who were elected over a four-year (two-term) election cycle are not returning to office in January 2011. Thirty-nine Assembly Members and eighteen State Senators who held office on January 1, 2007 will not return to the State Legislature for the 2011 Session. That’s a 27% turnover rate. Thirty percent of the senate membership will differ from January 2007. And, in light of Citizens Union’s insightful report on legislative turnover pointed out in 2009, the pursuit of another elected or appointed office remains the salient feature of this turnover. Defeat at the polls remains the least salient cause of turnover.
In 2007/2008, one Assembly Member was appointed state Comptroller, four left to join the Spitzer-Paterson Administration, two others were elected to the state senate, three others lost Primary/General Elections, one resigned due to a corruption conviction, and death claimed the lives of two others. Last year, four Members left to assume local political posts and one resigned due to a corruption conviction. And this year, a record eight Assembly Members are retiring outright (six Dems/two Reps); two Members lost their primary elections; two others lost primary contests for other offices; five are running for the state senate; one left to assume a county post; and another is running for county sheriff. Seventeen incumbents had served fewer than ten years. Twelve Members served ten years but fewer than 20 years. Seven served over 20 years. And three served more than 30 years.
Since the September 2010 party primaries, at least 19 incumbent Assembly Members will not be on the November 2 ballot. Given the perceived volatility of the electorate, another eight incumbents could be defeated in November, conceivably bringing the number of retiring Assembly Members to 27. Such an occurrence will see only 84% of Assembly Members returning to office.
The Legislative Gazette reports that the Assembly GOP thinks they can pick up 8-10 seats this year. The Assembly Democrats reportedly have to defend nine open seats this year. There are open seats in the 131st, 138th and 5th districts that could go Republican. The 125th district represented by Barbara Lifton is also reportedly in play. There are 18 Democrats and 12 Republicans running unopposed this year, including Sheldon Silver and Brian Kolb.
The state senate is not immune from change. At this juncture, sixteen senators elected in 2006 will not assume office in 2011. In this four-year election cycle, the state senate has already experienced a 30% turnover. Six senators, including Senator Pedro Espada, the instigator of last year’s coup, lost in primary or general elections. For the first time in one hundred years, a state senator, Hiram Monserrate, was expelled. There were eight retirements, as two sought higher office and two left for appointed positions. And sadly, Senator Tom Morahan died earlier this year.
Polls show that voters remember the June 2009 senate coup that ground state government to a halt and further damaged the reputation of the legislature. And with so many highly contested races this year, the senate may see its highest number of defeated incumbents since 2004, when seven incumbent senators lost re-election. The recently released Inspector General report on the AEG/Aqueduct Racino contract is widely seen as damaging to the current Senate Democratic leadership. The battle for control of the state senate is a serious battle for Republican survival. In December, the Census Bureau releases census data to the states. During the next session, the senate map will be redrawn for the 2012 election. Senate President Malcolm Smith famously said that the Republicans would be “redistricted into oblivion.” Notwithstanding creation of a nonpartisan redistricting commission, the upstate Republican base will shrink due to death, outmigration, the end of state prison-based gerrymandering, and other demographic changes.
Change is coming. Voters on November 2 will dictate what that change will be. The lagging economy, the rising costs of public pensions and Medicaid, and the clamor for property tax reform will be on the minds of voters as they cast their votes. If they vote to reduce the Assembly Democratic supermajority, they will tilt the Assembly majority more to the left as the liberal NYC delegation gains greater influence and more committee chairmanships. The Republican minority, however, would gain bargaining power and the ability to help override or sustain a veto on important issues such as the adoption of a state budget or even a redistricting plan. New Yorkers could vote for divided government by returning Republican control of the State Senate or by electing Harry Wilson or Dan Donovan, our next state comptroller and attorney general respectively. The next seven days will determine what kind of change is coming to New York.