Challenging Albany Tradition

Daniel Squadron is articulate and he is 28, so, in his bid to unseat a longtime State Senate incumbent, he has the facility for presenting a vision of change in compelling fashion.

By: PAUL SCHINDLER | Recalling the Empire State's long history “at the forefront of progressive government and civil rights” – from a “New Deal” for working people a decade before Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt brought the idea to Washington to its pioneering abortion rights law in 1970 – Daniel Squadron, a Democrat seeking to unseat a longtime State Senate incumbent in Lower Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn, is calling for “a rethinking of activist, progressive government.”

“There is a chance in New York to take the lead again,” he said during a recent breakfast with Gay City News.

Squadron is articulate and he is 28, so he has the facility for presenting this vision, amidst a year when “change” is the holy grail of American politics, in compelling fashion.

But ask Martin Connor, the 63-year-old incumbent who has held the 25th District seat for 30 years, what he thinks of Squadron's promise to challenge the established order in Albany, and he's unsparing in his dismissal of what he clearly sees as his challenger's posturing.

“Chuck Schumer's protege is not going to shake things up in Albany,” he told Gay City News and its sister newspapers, Downtown Express and The Villager, in a recent interview. “He's an ambitious – and there's nothing wrong with that – an ambitious young man who wants to be a state senator, but he's really never done anything for the community. He's had a series of paid political jobs. Consultant is about as insider as you can get. I look at Daniel, and aside from his being young, I don't see anything about him that says he's a change agent.”

Those comments summarize much of Connor's brief against his opponent, and also settle a nettlesome political score. Squadron is a Schumer protege of sorts – he was the co-author of the New York senior senator's 2007 book “Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time” and headed up field operations in the 2005 mayoral campaign of Congressman Anthony Weiner, the successor to Schumer's House seat who himself is considered something of a protege of the senator's.

And Connor has good reason to go after Schumer – the senator stunned political observers in April when he endorsed Squadron, something only a few other Democratic elected officials have been willing to do. Over the past several months, Connor has trotted out repeated rosters of Albany and City Hall Democratic incumbents voicing their support for his reelection.

More substantively, Connor challenges Squadron's bona fides as a reformer tied to the local community. Bronx-born, Squadron has only lived in Brooklyn since he graduated from college and has been a resident in the district, in Carroll Gardens, even less time. His credentials in helping pass a transportation bond act and in the city's school empowerment program were established, Connor noted, as a paid consultant, not a community activist.

But Squadron cedes no ground to his more experienced opponent in his command of the issues. Perhaps as the result of Squadron's time as his co-author, he displays some of the same wonkish love of detail that Schumer is famous for. His website includes detailed plans regarding reform of Albany, public school improvement, and community-based nightlife control. In an interview, he seemed eager to discuss broad themes such as the education of youth in the civics and ethics that would promote appreciation for diversity or the creation of a planning process that insures that creative energies and opportunities are preserved “at the city's core, rather than constantly being forced one subway stop further out.”

Put simply, Squadron believes that Albany is broken – in need of campaign finance reform, open debate in the Legislature, and competitive election races – and that Connor is the face of that broken system.

Connor, in contrast, argues that he has the seniority – no Senate Democrat has served longer – to make certain that if his party gains the two seats it needs in November to snatch the majority away from the Republicans, who've held it for decades, he will be in a position to insist that the reforms Squadron talks about actually are put front and center on the agenda.

Speaking of the team surrounding Queens Senator Malcolm Smith, who would become majority leader if the Democrats win control, Connor said, “I would have no problem looking them all in the eye and saying, 'Sorry this is the right thing to do. I'm going to have a press conference. If that embarrasses you… if you want to not be embarrassed, join me at the press conference and call on your colleagues to do this.'”

Yet, Connor once had Smith's current post, as minority leader, and lost it in a 2002 coup engineered by then-Senator David Paterson, a rebuke which Connor now insists was merely the end of his term. Asked to name an issue on which he has led the way in defiance of his party's leadership, Connor changed gears from his claim moments before about his willingness to use the bully pulpit: “I have a different style. I don't look to do a press conference. I don't look to brag about everything I've done.”

Squadron is far less equivocal in his commitment to be a squeaky wheel. In discussing his support for marriage equality – a position he shares with Connor – the challenger made specific reference to the 1,324 rights and responsibilities that the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's LGBT rights lobby, and the City Bar Association have identified as related to marriage under state law.

“That is a drum I plan to beat as aggressively as anybody,” he said.

Loud drum beaters will be needed, even if the Democrats regain the Senate, since in the 62-member chamber, only 21 – all of them Democrats – currently support marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, and six Democrats have voiced some level of opposition. Connor and Squadron agree that the way to advance this sort of measure is to force it onto the floor, even if the votes are not yet clearly there, in order to promote debate – and in the process perhaps offset Democratic no votes with a few GOP yeses. Both conceded that the approach is contrary to the practice that Assembly Democratic and Senate Republican leaders have exercised in recent years, but each man argues that is what is needed to change Albany.

Connor cannot be faulted on his gay rights record. On the three major LGBT agenda items pending before the Legislature – marriage equality, nondiscrimination protections based on gender identity and protection, and a school anti-bullying measure whose protected categories include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression – he is not only a supporter, but also a co-sponsor. He said that in his early days in the Senate, he was one of only three co-sponsors of the legislation that eventually became the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which did not win final approval until 2002.

Indeed, all four of the LGBT Democratic clubs that made an endorsement in the race – Brooklyn's Lambda Independent Democrats, the Stonewall Democrats of New York City, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, and the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats – stuck with the incumbent. Despite spirited advocacy on Squadron's behalf by Daniel Tietz, a former Lambda president, the club returned to the Connor fold after endorsing Ken Diamondstone, an unsuccessful out gay challenger, in 2006.

Squadron argued that a Democratic club endorsing an incumbent is not news – instead his upset win at the Downtown Independent Democrats is what merits headlines. Similarly, from that perspective, endorsements of Connor by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and State Senator Tom Duane, two leading LGBT elected officials, are what one would expect. The decisions by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a Democrat, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an Independent with ties to the State Republican Party, are more remarkable, in Squadron's estimation.

Beyond the polarities of youth and experience, and reform urgency and established progressive tradition, two key differences emerge between the two contenders. On public schools, while both say parents need more say in how their children are educated, Connor is for the most part a critic of Bloomberg's record with mayoral control, while Squadron believes it has been a vast improvement over the old, decentralized system run by a politically-appointed Board of Education. It is typical of Connor's commitment to the deliberative instincts of the Senate, however, that when asked how he would change the system as the state considers its renewal next year, he responded only that he had been appointed to co-chair a task force to examine the issue in advance of hearings.

The other critical difference is Squadron's commitment to be a full-time legislator. Earning $88,000 a year while putting two children through college, Connor argued his election law practice, which he said earns him no more than about $90,000 in his best years, is essential to his continued ability to live in the district he represents. He added that if he retired from the Senate and took his government pension – about $67,000, which is free of city and state taxes – he would net only about $12,000 a year less in income.

“I do it because I love doing this,” he said, explaining how little his work yields him monetarily.

Squadron was unsympathetic to Connor's complaint that $88,000 is not a sufficient salary.

“Maybe it discourages people from spending 30 or 40 years in the Legislature,” he said. “It is a sacred trust that a lot of people seem to want. Eighty thousand dollars is more than teachers or cops make.”

That said, it is fair to point out that Squadron comes to the game with some degree of personal resources. In 2007, Connor, with his wife's earnings, and Squadron on his own each pulled down income in the high 200,000s. In Squadron's case, however, just under $200,000 came in dividend income and capital gains.