Volume 18 • Issue 24 | Oct. 28 - Nov. 3, 2005

Assembly seat opens as Sanders resigns

By Lincoln Anderson

In a surprise move that is sending ripples of political speculation through the East Side, Assemblymember Steve Sanders last week announced he will not finish out the second year of his current two-year term and will retire from the Assembly on Jan. 1, 2006.

The move could result in a special election to fill his seat, possibly in late February, with the Democratic and Republican candidates picked by their parties’ County Committees. Although it’s not clear if she plans to be a candidate, Councilmember Margarita Lopez’s name is being mentioned.

Said to have been a strong potential candidate for speaker of the Assembly if the opportunity ever arose, Sanders in a statement released last Wednesday said that after 28 years in the Assembly he would be leaving to take a job at Crane and Vacco, a government consulting firm. Although the firm is headed by former Republican State Attorney General Dennis Vacco, Sanders, a Democrat, said they reached out to him for his expertise on social issues, like housing, civil rights, public health and education.

Sanders had quadruple-bypass heart surgery earlier this year, but he said he is in excellent health. Yet, he said the time he spent recuperating made him realize he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Tammy Jo, and his family.

“The convalescence period gave me something a lot of public officials don’t have — time to think,” Sanders said. “To me it seemed it was the right time to step away. Just to be with my wife would be a big plus. To do the job [in the Assembly] right, it’s a seven-day-a-week job. There are meetings on the nights and on the weekends. My encounter with quadruple-bypass surgery reminded me that you don’t always have the time you think you have. This will enable me to start a new chapter in my life,” said Sanders, 54. “I’ll do some writing, teaching, consulting. I’ll keep my hand in the government arena.”

Sanders chaired the Assembly’s Education Committee for a record 11 years. Among the accomplishments he said he was most proud of were being the lead sponsor in the Assembly of the SONDA gay civil rights bill; working with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to get a record funding increase for the schools system; allocating funding for universal pre-kindergarten classes; and working with Mayor Bloomberg to end decentralization of New York City’s public school system by helping Bloomberg take over control of the schools.

“Twenty-eight years was a long run in the Assembly,” Sanders said. “I have loved literally every day of it and I love the district I represented.”

Sanders lives in Peter Cooper Village. The 74th Assembly District, though a bit larger, includes much of the same area of the East Side as the Second City Council District.

That fact was not lost on Councilmember Lopez, who when asked last Thursday if she might consider running to succeed Sanders didn’t say yes or no.

“I don’t know what the future have for me,” she said. “I want the district to thrive — from 35th Street to Vladeck Houses [on the Lower East Side]. The Assembly district goes up a little farther.”

Yet a few years ago, Lopez told The Villager she wasn’t interested in spending time in Albany.

At the same time, speculation has swirled that Lopez, who will be term-limited out of the Council at the end of the year, has been angling for a job in the Bloomberg administration — especially after she recently endorsed the mayor for re-election, which was then followed less than a week later by the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s announcement that the old P.S. 64, one of Lopez’s chief causes, had been calendared for a designation hearing. The mayor and Lopez share a good relationship, and the suspicion of some was that the two might have cut some sort of deal.

But Lopez flatly denied any such arrangement and said there’s no guarantee she has a commissioner position waiting for her in a second Bloomberg administration.

“I don’t have no job with Bloomberg,” she said.

Yet, some doubt Lopez would want to work in Albany where they say she’d be “under the thumb” of Silver, whose chief of staff, Judy Rapfogel, Lopez upset in a close Council primary election in 1997.

Lopez also quashed that talk, saying, “I have good relationships with anyone who wants to have good relationships with me.”

Former Democratic District Leader Rosie Mendez, who won the Democratic primary in Council District 2 in September, said she’s not interested in running for Assembly and is looking forward to the general election.

“I worked really hard to be the councilmember, and that’s what I want to do,” she said. Yet, she hinted that Lopez might want to run for Sanders’s seat. “I think that’s a strong possibility — or, it’s certainly an option,” she said on Monday night.

But another insider said Lopez keeps changing her mind, “saying one thing one day, and another thing the next day.”

First, however, Governor Pataki must call a special election, which he hasn’t done yet. He also has the option of not calling a special election, in which case the district’s seat would remain empty until next November.

Sanders said it would be “very regrettable” if Pataki doesn’t call the special election, stressing that the district needs to be represented both in Albany and locally. But Sanders expects that while the governor will take his time, the election will be called in December after the general election and set for late February.

In a special election, the two County Committee members from each of the district’s 112 election districts would select the party’s candidate under a weighted voting system based on the number of Democrats in each election district who voted for governor in the last election. The district’s County Committee members are from four local political clubs, Coalition for a District Alternative, Gramercy-Stuyvesant Independent Democrats, Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club and Samuel Tilden Democratic Club. CoDA has the most clout in terms of the weighted votes, but no single club can elect the candidate by itself. Pending the calling of the election, the County Committee would meet in January to elect a candidate.

One factor against Lopez may be whether Democratic clubs will be willing to back her after her endorsing a Republican for mayor.

As for calling the special election, Saleem Cheeks, a Pataki spokesperson, said, “No decision has been made at this time regarding Sanders’s seat.”

Another scenario could emerge if Democrat Dan Garodnick loses to Republican Patrick Murphy in the Council District 4 election in a race that political observers are watching closely.

“That’s not a foregone conclusion that a Democrat will win,” Sanders said of District 4 — which was formerly represented by Republicans Andrew Eristoff and Charles Millard — noting that this race should be the focus before any special election. Lopez’s Council District 2 covers about two-thirds of the 74th A.D., while Council District 4 covers a third of the Assembly district.

Some thought that the candidates whom Mendez beat in her Council primary race might take a crack at the Assembly seat if there is a special election, but Sanders said the person selected will likely have more of a track record in politics in the district.

“The County Committee will probably tend to pick someone more familiar,” he said. “Someone who’s been in the community more than a year or two. My sense is the County Committee would gravitate toward a known quantity and person who has worked in the community and political structure for a number of years.”

As first, Sanders resisted speculating on who might replace him.

“You’re not going to get me into that — I’ll give you four names and forget four others,” he said. However, of Lopez, he said, “She’s an exceedingly capable person and an exceedingly good person.”

Asked, for example, if Democratic State Committeeman Michael Farrin might be a potential candidate, Sanders said, “Michael certainly fits — he’s one of those people.”

But, privately, a source doubted Farrin would be interested in running for Assembly. Farrin did not return a call for comment.

Sanders said he would have definitely been interested in running for speaker so that he could lead good public policy in the state, but said that Silver, who has been speaker the last 14 years, will continue to be so “for the foreseeable future — and I think it’s a good thing for the Assembly and for the state,” he added.

In a statement on Sanders’s resignation from the Assembly, Silver said:

“Under his leadership, New York has seen historic changes in education that have benefited the lives of school children through higher standards, better classroom conditions and modern instructional technology.”



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