Serph's Up

Friendly Democrats forget muscle, fumble state senate again

Last week we woke up to a New York more Democratic than at any time since 1942, when the party last controlled all six statewide offices. Just eight years ago, Republicans occupied half these once hotly contested posts—governor, lieutenant governor, senator, comptroller, and attorney general—but on Election Day, the GOP was even overwhelmed by a Democrat savaged daily by media and official demands for impeachment. Beyond the near record victory margins for Eliot Spitzer and Hillary Clinton, and the relatively modest triumphs of Alan Hevesi and Andrew Cuomo, the Democrats, incredibly, added three seats to their gluttonous 105-seat majority in the 150-seat assembly. In addition, three upstate and suburban GOP congressional strongholds fell to Democrats.

Yet remarkably, despite this groundswell, virtually nothing changed in that grizzled and white-haired old-men's club called the New York State Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans since 1964. Democrats gained just a single, still-disputed seat, apparently defeating Westchester incumbent Nick Spano, but allowing Republicans to still claim veto power over the Albany agenda through a muscular 34-to-28 senate majority. A tribute to the genius of computerized reapportionment, the GOP senate victory was also a commentary on the calamity of Democratic strategy and resolve, even in a year of historic opportunity. Little of the multimillions spent by the statewide Democratic players trickled down to the troops in the senate trenches, and the compromises that local party leaders have made with their GOP counterparts over the years came back at prime time to haunt the senate effort.

As surprisingly minimal as the shift in the balance of power was, the real shock came from within the boundaries of this very Democratic city, where the dominant party failed to seriously compete for any of the four seats held by incumbent Republicans.

Marty Golden, a mere two-term GOP incumbent from a district in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn previously represented by a Democrat, wound up with no opponent at all and strolled toward his office smoking a fat victory cigar at 5 p.m. on Election Day. Democrats nominated a gay attorney, Matt Titone, for an open seat in heavily Catholic Staten Island, taking a 10,000-vote loss and no advantage of the decision by 50-year GOP incumbent John Marchi not to seek re-election. Nora Marino, who challenged Queens Republican Frank Padavan, was an untested lawyer who couldn't win 40 percent of the vote in a district that's almost 70 percent Democratic. Two term-limited Democrats in the City Council, Mike McMahon and Tony Avella, passed on entering either the Staten Island or Queens races, as did assembly incumbents, uninspired by the muted party calls to arms.

But the biggest story in the subterranean senate catastrophe surfaced in another Queens senate district, represented for nearly 18 years by Serph Maltese, who doubles as the chairman of the Queens Republican Party. Maltese barely beat an obscure maverick, Albert Baldeo, who could not even get the Queens Democratic party to designate him a candidate, or even to support him. In half a dozen interviews over the weeks leading up to the election, senate Republicans and Democrats failed to list the two-to-one Democratic seat as even remotely competitive, yet Baldeo came within 783 votes of beating the supposed powerhouse Maltese, garnering almost 49 percent of the vote. Maltese himself was so oblivious to the seriousness of the threat that he spent much of Election Day making cookie runs to campaign volunteers and chatting with a Voice reporter.

Amid munches on an anaconda-sized sub sandwich at his GOP headquarters, beneath a giant print of Christopher Columbus, Maltese contended that Baldeo was attempting to convince voters that he was Italian. "Since the campaign began, he has never shown up at a single community event," said the 74-year-old incumbent, who also once chaired the county's Conservative Party. "What's the reason? I believe that's because he's very dark and he didn't want the average voter to know he's Guyanese. Even the Italians think he's Italian. My name doesn't sound as Italian as his." Since Baldeo's posters contained no photo of him, Maltese said his wife wanted him to put "Call Missing Persons" on his own leaflets attacking Baldeo. Maltese offered no explanation for why a phony Italian might almost have almost beaten a real one who'd controlled the district for nearly two decades.

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee spent virtually none of its $2 million war chest on city candidates and barely talked to Baldeo, who proved to be its strongest losing candidate in the state. Baldeo's astonishing near-success is a measure of how strong the Democratic wave was, and how ineffective both the senate and Queens Democratic operations were in recruiting candidates. Baldeo, an immigration lawyer, put himself on the ballot without any party help. Democratic officials distanced themselves from him because he was arrested last year when he ran for City Council, spending a night in jail after he allegedly threatened his opponent's wife with a gun. He and his opponent eventually agreed to drop charges against each other, but party officials wanted nothing to do with him, or to support any alternative.

Early in 2006, City Councilman Joe Addabbo publicly toyed with the notion of running, but senate sources say he got no encouragement from the Queens party brass either. Even now, Baldeo says he's not getting any help from Queens officials in the legal challenge he hopes to mount against the election results, alluding to the possibility that "some truce" involving Maltese and the party exists.

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