Coup Upends New York Special

Posted June 10, 2009 at 6:34pm

The chaos engulfing New York politics has spilled over into the yet-to-be-scheduled special election to replace Rep. John McHugh (R), with many Empire State Republicans privately concluding that flipping a state Senate seat is more important than holding on to McHugh’s House district.

With New York still going through political convulsions over a coup this week that put Republicans — temporarily, at least — in control of the state Senate, state Sen. Darrel Aubertine (D) has emerged as the leading potential candidate to replace McHugh in the 23rd district. And regardless of what national Republicans say about McHugh’s seat, at least some New York GOP insiders seem content to let Aubertine win — thus boosting the Democrats’ edge in the Empire State’s federal delegation to an eye-popping 27-2.

“It’s an amazing time to be watching New York politics,— former Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) said.

Because the Senate is the last bastion of Republican power in Albany, GOP leaders are looking ahead to the 2010 elections and the next round of Congressional and state redistricting in 2012, when New York is expected to lose one or two House seats. If Aubertine is elected to Congress, the Republicans have an excellent shot at recapturing, via special election, his Senate seat — which Aubertine himself just won in an early 2008 special election.

But that’s just one of the subplots involving McHugh’s upstate seat, which has been in Republican hands for generations.

“There are a lot of dynamics going on here,— said Brendan Quinn, an Albany-based Republican consultant.

A Democratic operative in Washington, D.C., following the New York developments closely was more raw in his assessment.

“It’s f—ing chaos,— he said. “Everything’s flipped upside down. There’s so much to sort out.—

The first unknown is when a special election will take place — and under what rules.

McHugh was tapped by President Barack Obama last week to be secretary of the Army. If the confirmation process is quick, it is possible the nominees will be chosen in a special September primary followed by a special general election in November. That would coincide with the state’s regular election calendar; many municipalities and most counties have primaries this September and a general election in November.

But the likelier scenario is that the Democratic and Republican chairmen in the district’s 11 counties will select their nominees, with a special election still set for either primary day, Election Day or some other date as determined by Gov. David Paterson (D).

Republican officials will go into the process burned by their experience in a recent special election in the adjacent 20th district, where a political novice, Scott Murphy (D), beat a veteran state legislator, Jim Tedisco (R), despite trailing in the polls by more than 20 points when the race started.

Still a bigger unknown is the state of the state Senate, and whether Aubertine chooses to run for Congress. His decision could be driven by the events of the next several days.

Albany this week has been paralyzed by the power struggle in the Senate. Democrats took control of the chamber for the first time in 44 years — and, with it, full control over state government — by the slimmest of margins in November. But in a surprise move Monday, Republicans forced a procedural vote to reconsider the chamber’s leadership structure. Two Democrats sided with the GOP, obliterating the Democrats’ fragile 32-30 majority and handing control back to the Republicans.

Adding to the sense of disorder, one of the dissident Democrats — who has since been installed as President Pro Tem of the Senate, putting him next in line to succeed Paterson — has a long list of campaign finance violations and has been accused of diverting state money into his own pocket. The other faces criminal charges for allegedly slashing his girlfriend with broken glass. But rumors have been flying that as many as a half-dozen other Democrats may also be ready to caucus with the GOP — even though they wouldn’t change their party registrations.

After two days of public protests and intense behind-the-scenes negotiations, the Senate was supposed to meet Wednesday afternoon. But minutes before the scheduled session, with the doors still padlocked, the Senate Democratic leader announced he was preparing to seek a court injunction to keep the Senate in recess and reverse Monday’s vote.

The drama was still playing out at press time Wednesday. But many New York political professionals believe Aubertine is far more likely to run in a special Congressional election if the Senate stays in Republican hands.

“Certainly, it’s another thing to consider when making a decision to run for Congress,— Drew Mangione, a spokesman for Aubertine, conceded Wednesday. But Mangione said his boss was still weighing his options and was nowhere close to making up his mind.

Aubertine, by all accounts, would be a formidable candidate. The sprawling 23rd district is mostly rural and is fractured politically, and Aubertine represents about half of the district’s voters in Albany. He has also developed a reputation for winning seats, first in the state Assembly and then in the Senate, that have been off-limits to Democrats for generations.

Although there are 46,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district, Obama took 52 percent of the vote there in 2008, and Democrats believe the district is ripe for the picking. The small but influential Independence Party, which alternately endorses Republicans and Democrats, has already committed to supporting Aubertine in a special House election if he runs.

Aubertine does not need to give up his Senate seat to run in a special election. But many political professionals believe his seat stands a good chance of flipping back to the GOP if he advances to Congress. For many Albany Republicans, who are desperate to hold onto a slice of power in the state Capitol, extra padding in the state Senate could trump the loss of McHugh’s Congressional seat.

“I think the insiders realize how important [Senate control] is,— said one Republican strategist intimately familiar with New York.

Democrats believe they have a list of potentially solid candidates even if Aubertine decides against a Congressional bid. That list is headed by state Democratic Party Chairwoman June O’Neill, a veteran of state politics and government, and former U.S. Attorney Daniel French. Watertown City Councilman Jeffrey Smith and attorney Michael Oot, the 2008 nominee against McHugh, have also expressed an interest in running.

Matthew Walter, a spokesman for the New York Republican Party, said the GOP also has a strong bench of potential Congressional candidates.

“We’re going to run the best candidate, and we intend to win that seat,— he said. “It’s a Republican seat now, and we’re going to win that seat.—

Matthew Doheny, an investment banker in New York City who grew up in the upstate district and still owns a home in Watertown, has begun to reach out to county GOP leaders and talk to consultants about the race. Franklin County Legislator Paul Maroun has also expressed an interest in running, and state Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava and Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne are also taking a look at the race.

Scozzafava is a potentially potent candidate, with strong ties to labor despite her GOP affiliation. But she is a social moderate, and if she is the Republican nominee in the special election, the New York Conservative Party, which usually cross-endorses Republicans, may choose to run a candidate against her. Many New York insiders believe Scozzafava is more interested in seeking Aubertine’s Senate seat, if it becomes open, than running for Congress.

Some Republicans are intrigued by Doheny, who is wealthy but could be hampered by the fact that he no longer lives in the district.

“I’ve heard some people describe Matt Doheny as a Republican Scott Murphy,— said Quinn, the Albany-based GOP consultant, who has talked to Doheny about working on his campaign but has not yet inked a deal.

Quinn is also the chief strategist for state Senate Republicans, meaning any work he does for Doheny could be at odds with the wishes of Senate GOP leaders who want Aubertine to move on. But that’s just another sign of how complicated the calculations involving the special election have become.

“These days, with New York politics,— Reynolds said, “you need an interpreter to say, What did that actually mean?’—