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N.Y. Senators Look to D.C. for Support

As New York Democrats move ever closer to their dream of capturing the state Senate for the first time in 40 years — and with it, full control of state government — they are turning to Members of Congress and the national Democratic establishment for help.

State Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith (D) spent two days in Washington, D.C., this week, meeting with Capitol Hill and party leaders, raising money and spreading the word that New York Democrats want their state to serve as a national model for innovative policies and political reform.

“It’s important for us to show the leaders in Congress how things have changed in the New York state Senate,” Smith said in an interview Wednesday.

But Smith and his allies are mixing the “good government” message with a flexing of political muscle, telling national Democrats that they can help the party add to its Congressional majority by picking up seats in the Empire State, where Democrats already hold a 23-6 advantage in the House delegation.

“For us, it’s parochial,” Smith said. “We want to get back the seats we lost in Texas.”

Just as Democrats have flipped five House seats in New York since 2002, they have been steadily chipping away at the Republicans’ once-solid majority in the heavily gerrymandered New York Senate for the past few election cycles. They now need just two seats to effectively take control, with Democratic Lt. Gov. David Paterson breaking ties.

Smith said the Democrats could target as many as six Republican seats next year, and are also monitoring the retirement plans of four GOP Senators in potentially competitive districts.

Working in the Democrats’ favor, Smith said, is the fact that the Senate has crafted an agenda that will appeal to voters beyond New York City, the Democrats’ traditional base. Outside factors, such as President Bush’s low poll numbers and the possibility of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) at the top of the ticket as the presidential nominee, also could propel Democratic Senate candidates in New York, he said.

If the Democrats win the state Senate majority in 2008, as Smith predicts, they are almost certain to control the redistricting process that follows the 2010 Census because they have a popular governor and a huge majority in the state Assembly. But the desire of Democratic legislative leaders to steamroll Republicans on redistricting could run into a formidable foe from their own party: Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D).

Spitzer, whose reform-minded agenda produced an eye-popping 70 percent showing at the polls in November, repeatedly has said that he favors creating an independent commission to handle legislative and Congressional redistricting in New York. But Smith — who maintains that some of the reforms Spitzer embraces were first advanced by Democratic state Senators — hopes the governor can be persuaded to leave the map-making in the hands of the politicians.

Even if they have to swallow a redistricting commission, Democratic Senate leaders believe the next legislative and Congressional maps will be fairer than the ones drawn after the 2000 Census.

State Sen. José M. Serrano (D), the son of Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) who accompanied Smith to Washington, D.C., this week, said having full Democratic control in Albany or a nonpartisan commission “will level the playing field” when the new boundaries are drawn. He said Democratic Members are aware that with the party picking up so many Congressional seats in New York, “we can expect Republican funny business [during the next round of redistricting] if we don’t level the playing field.”

The New York Senators took their message this week to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D- Mich.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, as well as several Members from the Empire State Congressional delegation. They also had a fundraiser Wednesday night at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s D.C. headquarters.

Traveling with them was William Samuels, a New York businessman and major Democratic donor who has launched two organizations to help Democrats at the local level, Blue Tiger Democrats and the Albany Project. Samuels, whose father, Howard Samuels, was a key figure in New York Democratic politics in the 1960s and ’70s, said he is telling D.C. Democrats that they have “an exciting opportunity” to become part of the team that is trying to bring reform to the Empire State.

“This is our chance to improve New York,” he said.

The elder Serrano said his Congressional colleagues seem enthusiastic about helping bring a majority to the state Senate because New York “is such an important state for setting the national agenda.”

“It’s exciting to know that we on the national level can look to the state level for leadership and partnership,” he said.

The message about redistricting, the Congressman continued, also will resonate.

“It’ll be nice to know that we can get a fair shake in getting their districts drawn in a fair way,” he said.

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