Skelos replaces Bruno as Senate leader

June 24, 2008 6:25:30 PM PDT
Long Island Senator Dean Skelos is the new majority leader of the New York Senate, replacing Senator Joseph Bruno.Republicans met behind closed doors and voted in their new leader Tuesday afternoon, one day after the 79-year-old Bruno announced he would not seek re-election. Bruno took control of the Senate in 1994.

Skelos is 60. He was born, raised and educated in Nassau County's Rockville Centre.

It's unclear what Bruno's plans are for the remainder of his term.

In 1982, Skelos did something virtually unheard of at the time for a Republican politician from Nassau County: He lost an election.

Two years later, he came back and won the seat, and has held it ever since. Now, he has earned another significant political victory.

It is the culmination in a distinguished political career in which Skelos has constantly applied the lessons learned during that unsuccessful 1982 race.

"It changed his view about what he needs to do to be a successful politician," recalled Larry Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. The main lesson: Never take anything for granted.

"He ran a generic campaign that first time, didn't do much door-to-door campaigning."

Levy noted that at the time, the Nassau County GOP was one of the most powerful political machines in the country, having elected a little-known town supervisor, Alfonse D'Amato, to the U.S. Senate in 1980. Skelos learned that despite the political machinery, there was no substitute for face-to-face politicking.

And like D'Amato, who earned the nickname "Sen. Pothole" for his tireless work on behalf of constituents, Skelos has since built his considerable political capital by always keeping one eye on his Long Island district as he plies his trade in Albany.

"He pays a lot of attention to the neighborhoods in his district, wants to know what civic, religious and other leaders are thinking about and he puts a lot of effort into making sure they're well taken-cared of," said Levy.

Herbert Rosenbaum, a retired political science professor and president of the Democratic club in Skelos' hometown of Rockville Centre, said Skelos has never been bashful about distributing so-called "member item" funding to various civic groups and other organizations in his district.

"He is one of the most savvy politicians around," said Rosenbaum. "He is very sharp and is all-knowing, in the sense that he knows exactly what he needs to do in order to become as prominent as he has."

In his last bid for a 12th term, Skelos carried Rockville Centre by 75 percent, according to Rosenbaum, "so he is widely respected as a political force."

A lifelong Rockville Centre resident, Skelos received a bachelor's in history from Washington College in Maryland and graduated from Fordham University School of Law in 1975. Prior to winning his Senate seat in 1984, he served one term in the state Assembly in 1980-81. He is married with one son.

Skelos is also the author of the state's Megan's Law, which tracks dangerous sexual predators, and has supported amendments to the law that prevent registered sex offenders from accessing social networking Web sites. He also was behind the elimination of the New York City "commuter tax," which had forced suburban residents working in the city to pay income taxes.

With Republicans clinging to a one-vote majority as the November elections loom, Democrats hope that his run as majority leader will be short-lived. "He's coming in just in time to become the minority leader. That's the joke that's circulating among friends.

It looks like the tide is coming in," Rosenbaum said.

Levy thinks if the GOP wants to retain a grip on power, they would be smart to learn from Skelos.

"If the Republican Party is going to make a comeback it will have to start with a grassroots approach, based in the most volatile part of the state, the suburbs," he said. "He is the quintessential suburban politician: he has very conservative impulses on criminal justice issues and has moderate, sometimes even liberal positions in social issues."


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