Democrats went into the election needing to net two seats in the Senate to achieve supermajority status, which they’ve long enjoyed in the Assembly. Election night returns, which did not include absentee ballots, prematurely showed Republicans ahead in many races, but as mail votes were counted, Democrats surged into leads across the state.
With AP calls and candidate concessions (including two by Republicans on Tuesday, one in the 40th District and the other in the 46th), Democrats have secured 40 seats and have wide leads in two others, the 39th and 60th. Party leaders, who celebrated the anticipated milestone on Monday, could yet see their final tally grow to 43 if the 50th District, where Republicans hold a three-point lead, breaks their way.
These legislative supermajorities would, at least in theory, allow Democratic lawmakers to override—or at least threaten to override—vetoes by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has long stood in the way of progressive reform despite having been elected as a Democrat himself. Cuomo, predictably, acted blasé about the development, noting that he still holds tremendous sway over the all-important state budget.
Legislators could, however, still use their newfound power to circumvent Cuomo’s wishes in other areas, most notably redistricting. With a two-thirds vote, Democrats could bypass a 2014 amendment to the state constitution that, under the pretense of establishing an independent commission—a judge literally ordered that the word “independent” be stricken from the amendment’s description because it was nothing of the sort—was actually designed to ensure Republicans would have a say in redistricting no matter how small their minority might shrink.
If they remain united, therefore, Democrats in Albany could pass new congressional and legislative maps entirely on their own. That would allow them to produce anything from extreme partisan gerrymanders to districts designed to protect incumbents to genuinely fair maps.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins recently suggested that she intends to keep both partisan and civic aims in mind, saying at a Monday press conference, “We will do the right thing. I believe that we will be able to draw up lines that are, you know, contiguous and rational, and still be able to achieve a Democratic majority.” Given New York’s strong blue lean, however, almost any maps short of the sort of Republican gerrymander currently in place should consistently yield majorities for Democrats.
The big question, of course, is whether Democrats will in fact be able to stick together. One obvious problem is Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder, a conservative Democrat who for many years caucused with Republicans and was only welcomed back into the Democratic fold last year. But beyond Felder or any other troublesome members, there remains … the budget.
As Democratic Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, who has served in the chamber for half a century, put it in a highly informative article by the Albany Times Union‘s Edward McKinley, “Even when we’re not doing the budget, when people are thinking of giving the governor a hard time, they always have to remember what the governor can do in the budget.” Given Cuomo’s notorious penchant for vengefulness, Democrats who cross him on redistricting—or any other matter—could pay a dear price when it comes time for what McKinley dubbed the “sweepstakes underpinning the state’s roughly $170 billion annual spending.”
If the entire party stands against the governor, Democrats might find safety in numbers. But Cuomo’s ability to strike back at his enemies, real and perceived, can never be underestimated, and that’s something lawmakers won’t ever forget.