New York voters on Tuesday sent a shock wave through Albany by giving the Democrats a majority in the State Senate. The last time the Senate was out of GOP control, many (if not most) Americans did not yet have color television. The last time the Democrats controlled both legislative chambers and the governor's mansion, Joe DiMaggio had yet to play a baseball game for the New York Yankees.
What will it all mean for New Yorkers in general and the New York insurance industry in particular? For one thing, the industry's long relationship with Republican Senator James Seward has been rudely interrupted. Seward, long-time chair of the Insurance Committee, will be replaced by an as-yet unknown Democrat. The industry had a relatively cooperative relationship with Seward; many insurance players fear a cooler reception from the new sherriff.
However, the champagne glasses hadn't yet dried before the new majority ran into problems. As Tom Precious reported in the Nov. 6 Buffalo News:
But while they high-fived in the hallways in Albany on Wednesday, Democrats, who enjoy a long New York tradition of infighting, provided a sizable dose of political intrigue as four New York City lawmakers — dubbed the Gang of Four — refused to back the current top Democrat as the next majority leader.
The possible renegade Democrats sent signals that one or more could even join up with Republicans to block a Democratic takeover, a theory prodded along when the four huddled to discuss their strategy and what they want in return for their support of a new Senate leader. They even released a photograph of their session just for good measure.
Top Democrats, however, insisted all was fine, though insiders note that Gov. David A. Paterson is not a major fan of Malcolm Smith of Queens, the senator in line to take over the Senate.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that people living in Upstate are worried that, with the Senate in Democratic (read: New York City) control, the state government will forget that New York State extends north of Yonkers. Some commentators believe those fears are exaggerated:
But Smith, the Senate Democratic leader, has given greater attention to upstate concerns in recent years. He formed an upstate caucus within his delegation to draw up laws and programs to help those lawmakers' regions, proposed revamping economic development programs aimed at upstate to make them more effective and sought the hardest cap on property tax growth.
"Just because it's Democratic controlled doesn't mean it's liberal control," said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll, noting that a narrow Senate Democratic majority can't afford to lose any upstate Democrats.
Democrats clearly know the potential power of an upstate vote. Brooklyn-born Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer and Westchester County resident Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton often travel upstate to talk about the likes of apples, dairy farming and rural truck traffic.
With the state government facing a large and growing budget deficit, insurance issues may get short shrift when the new legislature convenes in January. When former Governor Eliot Spitzer took office in 2007 and chose Assemblyman (and Insurance Committee chair) Pete Grannis to run the Department of Environmental Conservation, the legislative session nearly ended before Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver picked Rochester Assemblyman Joseph Morelle to head up the committee. If the new Senate majority leader, whoever that may be, takes a similar approach to naming a Senate Insurance Committee chair, the insurance industry can probably look forward to a whole lot of not much legislative activity in 2009.
One never knows what may happen in the state capitol, however, so don't touch that dial.