Right now, the top news in the New York politics is the story of the State Senate’s lulu payments, the extra money that legislators in leadership positions earn. A New York Times investigation discovered that seven Senators (three Independent Democrats and four Republicans) earned lulus for positions they did not hold. While the legal fallout is unclear, the consequences will reverberate throughout New York politics.
Thanks to his coalition with the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference, Republican Leader John Flanagan (Long Island) leads the Senate even though there are 32 Democrats and only 31 Republicans. To maintain support, he arranged for seven Republican and Independent Democratic Conference members to earn larger lulus by paying committee vice-chairs as if they chaired the committees. This continued a practice of his predecessor, Dean Skelos (since convicted for corruption). Flanagan must have figured no one would notice.
Unfortunately, in this age of Trump, there’s now a spotlight on government and an outcry ensued.
At the urging of Senate Democrats, the State Comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, and other law enforcement agencies are investigating whether these payroll documents constitute fraud. Republicans, though, say that they were following the law and accepted practice. In an interview on NY1, IDC Senator Diane Savino (Staten Island) declared that the lulu payments were “proper, in accordance with the law.” While investigation is uncertain, the political outcomes are more obvious and no one stands to benefit.
Senate Republicans – Big Losers Now, in November 2018, and Beyond
Senate Republicans are an obvious loser in this exchange. Their leader and staffers might be in legal trouble and next year, they’ll be facing a hostile electorate. In special elections so far, Trump’s unpopularity has fired up Democrats, turned independents off the GOP and depressed Republican turnout. While we’re still 17 months until November 2018 and the political environment could change, Republicans are likely to be under the gun.
This scandal won’t endear them to voters. If an investigation proceeds, negative stories could continue for months or years. Even if no one faces the heat, Democrats have a ready-made talking point: “Republicans violated the law to pay themselves more.” New York Republicans will need to stand apart from Trump but especially now, voters may well link them to Trump’s self-dealing.
It might take some miracle for Flanagan’s Republicans to maintain control of the Senate. If they do, Flanagan will be more limited in paying lulus to pacify internal dissenters and keep the IDC happy.
Independent Democratic Conference – Bad Publicity
The Independent Democrats have tried to stay under the radar of Democratic activists. In 2014, they were able to pacify unions and progressive activists who threatened to challenge them in primaries. Then, in 2016, they picked up a couple new members (Marisol Alcantara and Jesse Hamilton) without drawing heated opposition. Then, Trump won and the strategy got more difficult.
The lulu payment scandal adds to the negative attention the IDC has tried to avoid. However, the 2018 elections will not be as daunting for them. A few of their members might fear primaries: Jose Peralta and Tony Avella in Queens, Manhattan Sen. Marisol Alcantara and Brooklyn Sen. Jesse Hamilton. Their other members are generally safe. Moreover, the IDC sees the Democrats who take Republican seats in 2018 as potential allies. They’ll come from suburban or rural districts where an association with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will be a negative and those new Senators would be more moderate than the mainline Senate Democrats.
Come November and December 2018, the IDC will likely still hold the balance of power in the Senate, even if they are weakened by this.
Senate Democrats – Looking Good by Comparison But Facing a Steep Hill
This scandal hurts the IDC and Republicans who stand in the way of the regular Democrats controlling the Senate. However, sources close to the IDC say that Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ aggressive call for an investigation further bitters an already-acrimonious relationship with the IDC. It’ll be more difficult to get their support now, which leaves the Democrats far from a majority.
In order to hold a majority in the Senate, the regular Democrats will need to net 9 seats in 2018. That’s potentially doable–Hillary Clinton won 40 Senate districts–but it’s a tall order, even with any problems the Republicans face. If they get close, Democrats might be able to woo Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder and the IDC. However, that will be more difficult if relations suffer due to the lulu scandal.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo – Caught in the Middle
Though Cuomo is a Democrat, he’s more closely aligned with the IDC. Though there is no love lost between the two groups of Democrats, Gov. Cuomo is a key reason for the division. In fact, informed sources believe that they would have reunited after the 2016 election if not for Gov. Cuomo pulling strings to prevent it. His main goals appear to be preventing a unified Democratic legislature from challenging his leadership and preparing to run for President.
This scandal threatens that agenda in a big way. If it leads to a Democratic Senate (Democrats already hold a large majority in the Assembly), the legislature will pass bills that could force Cuomo to choose between keeping his Wall Street donors happy and appeasing Democratic activists. That problem would become especially pronounced if the 2018 elections again leave the IDC as king-makers; activists like the Working Families Party would question Gov. Cuomo’s commitment to the Democratic Party on the eve of his run for President.
However, even if the Senate doesn’t change hands, Cuomo will be dragged into a fight he doesn’t want. His Presidential campaign is already an uphill climb; news about Republican corruption on his watch is just an added difficulty.
Constitutional Convention – Got a Great Argument
This fall, New York will vote to empanel a Constitutional Convention. The groups in favor of the ConCon, as it’s referred to, already planned to argue that the establishment (which almost uniformly opposes the ConCon) is corrupt and can’t be trusted to fix state government without extraordinary measures. This scandal just helps them make the case that much more clearly.
General Public – Diminished Trust in Government
The suggestion of corruption is bad news for everyone. Regardless of the legality, the specter of hidden payments diminishes trust in elected officials. Anyone who wants government to address any of the numerous problems we confront today needs the general public to believe that elected leaders are working for them, not simply trying to further their own self-interest. In the absence of that trust, advocates (even for causes that seek to reform government) will encounter lower expectations and less hope that government officials can or will make a positive difference.