By CYRIL JOSH BARKER, Amsterdam News Staff
For more than 40 years, the Republican Party controlled the New York State Senate.
Former State Sen. Joe Bruno and his Senate cronies ruled the body with an iron fist. The then-minority Democratic Party had little power over the Senate legislative process or the state’s purse strings.
Making the situation worse, the New York State Republican Senate Conference has mirrored the Republicans’ federal Senate caucus: It has been the party of whites. There has not been a Black or Hispanic member in the New York State Senate in anyone’s political memory.
Republican domination and a lack of diversity has meant that over time, the Senate has given limited or no consideration to issues of importance to the Black community or other communities of color.
Times do change.
Bruno was forced to retire in 2008 and was convicted of abusing his power by the feds earlier this year. With the Democrats also taking a slim majority in the Senate election in 2008, Democrats have been given the opportunity to bring a more diverse conference to the forefront.
But politics can get messy, and last year, an internal fight among the Democrats caused a split in the Democratic Conference, leaving control of the Senate in question. Only the intervention of Gov. David Paterson in the process and the elevation of John Sampson to majority leader of the Democratic Conference brought back a degree of stability to the fragile caucus.
A little over a year since his elevation, Sampson said that while mainstream media is portraying him as a dormant politician, he is working hard, passing solid legislation and giving voters a clear choice this season.
“People shouldn’t support 44 years of people who have had dysfunction and chaos,” Sampson said in a recent interview with the Amsterdam News, referring to the Republican Party. “We are dismantling an infrastructure. [I AM NOT SURE WHAT THIS MEANS…CRS] We are not kicking the can down the road like the Republicans.”
While Democrats are taking the heat for the hold-up in the state budget, Sampson says the budget is 99 percent complete. He blames two factors for the hold up: the Federal Medical Assistance Percentages and concerns over tuition costs for CUNY and SUNY.
“We are working with the speaker because the money involving Medicaid may be called into question, especially for teachers,” he said. [WHAT DOES MEDICAID HAVE TO DO WITH TEACHERS? CRS] “As far as CUNY and SUNY, concern comes at a time of a great increase in tuition by 30 percent. We have to ask the question, ‘How can students manage?’ Over a 30-year period, tuition annually at SUNY has gone up 6 percent, and at CUNY, 5.5 percent.”
The senator said that job creation is the key issue in the state right now. If Democrats remain in control in New York State government, Sampson said more jobs would be created.
The recent passage of legislation for the Excelsior Jobs Program, for example, keeps close to half a million people working in the state, according to the senator. The program will provide job creation and investment incentives to firms in such targeted industries as high tech, clean technology, green technology, manufacturing and others.
“We need to make sure that we have fiscal reform to create economic opportunities in the state of New York,” he said.
With an upcoming election this fall, questions are rising about Black leadership when it comes to New York State government. No Blacks were tapped by the state’s Democratic Party to run for statewide offices, including governor, attorney general or state comptroller.
Sampson wants to reassure voters that even though there are no Blacks running for statewide office, the voice of the Black community will be heard in Albany because of the diversity of the State Senate. He also believes that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo will have a diverse administration if elected.
He said, “It’s not about Black or white; it’s about the people. We have a great team running. What we need is a person who can deal with the issues in the state.”
Running unopposed in the 19th District, which covers Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Brownsville and Canarsie neighborhoods, he said despite what has been written about him, his constituents are the judge and jury.
Some of Sampson’s recent legislation he has helped pass includes raising the cap of discrepancy purchases that a state agency can award to MWBEs and banning the NYPD from keeping an electronic database of those stopped and frisked.
“They see that I have been taking care of home,” he said. “I’ve been trying to provide A- plus service, but there are still a lot of kinks I could’ve worked out. The bottom line is results.”