ALBANY, N.Y. – The head of the state's Conservative Party (search) threatened Monday to withhold party support from election-bound Republican state senators unless they toe the conservative line on some major issues.
The warning comes just over a week before the GOP-led state Senate is due back in session, possibly to vote on raising the state's minimum wage, among other things.
"It's been the job of the Conservative Party over the 42 years (it has existed) to try every once in a while to raise its head and try to hold back the enemy — the enemy being big government — and I think that time has come," said Michael Long, state chairman of the Conservative Party.
Long's threat is no small matter because New York, unlike most states, allows cross endorsements by political parties. That means Conservative Party votes can be crucial for a Republican in a close race. Republican George Pataki won the governor's job in 1994 over Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo on the strength of votes from the Conservative Party ballot line.
Long and other Conservative Party leaders have been increasingly upset with the state Senate's Republican majority for siding with Democrats who control the Assembly. Last year, the Senate GOP joined with Assembly Democrats to raise state income and sales taxes over Pataki vetoes and Conservative Party objections. The Legislature, this time with Pataki's support, also adopted legislation to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, a move roundly criticized by the Conservative Party.
Long wrote Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno on July 2 demanding to know, prior to Wednesday, what action the Senate planned to take on a host of issues, including raising the minimum wage and legislation to ease the smoking ban, when it goes into session next week.
"Mike Long will get a response to his letter," was all Bruno spokesman Mark Hansen would say on Monday.
The contents of Long's letter were first reported Monday by the New York Post.
Thus far, Bruno has declined to say what measures he will push for passage next week in a session scheduled to start on Tuesday, just one day after the deadline for the Conservative Party to finalize its endorsements for the November elections.
Long said he will meet Friday with other party leaders to decide which, if any, Republican state senators will be denied Conservative Party backing this year, when all 62 Senate seats and 150 Assembly seats are up for election.
"The time has come to take the position that we're not going to tolerate it any more," Long said. "They may be our friends — they are our friends — but we just cannot continue to watch people vote on the liberal side of the aisle and think there's no consequence for it."
There has been speculation that Bruno wants approval for an increase in the state's minimum wage to help the GOP win two Senate seats in the heavily Democratic New York City area. The Assembly has already voted to raise the minimum wage in three steps to $7.10, up from $5.15.
There has also been speculation that Bruno scheduled the Senate session to start just after the Conservative Party endorsements were locked in to avoid creating additional political problems for GOP senators who may be asked to support such legislation.
Long said the Senate GOP has become increasingly liberal over the past decade as Democrats make inroads in traditionally Republican areas. He said he doesn't care about those demographic changes.
"I have a responsibility to the people who vote on the Conservative line," he said, "the registered Conservatives who believe in a way of life."