ALBANY -- Gov. Eliot Spitzer's handpicked candidate appeared to have won a tight Long Island special election Tuesday that could affect the balance of power in the Republican-controlled state Senate and enhance the new governor's political clout.
With all precincts reporting in Nassau County's 7th Senate District, Republican Maureen O'Connell trailed Democrat Craig Johnson, 22,929 votes to 26,452. As results were tallied, the lead flipped at least three times. More than 3,000 absentee ballots were mailed out for this race, according to Nassau County elections officials, but even if O'Connell took them all she could not overcome Johnson's lead.
Republicans have held the seat for about a century, according to Democrats.
"As Democrats, we are on our way to a new majority in the state Senate -- a cause that was advanced tonight that continues starting now ... and as New Yorkers we will help Eliot Spitzer finish the job of changing state government so it works for all of us, not just the well-connected few," Johnson said in prepared remarks.
Spitzer called Johnson's success "a reaffirmation of the public desire to move our reform agenda forward."
The election, which became necessary in late December when Spitzer tapped former Republican Sen. Michael Balboni to serve as his deputy secretary for public safety, holds high stakes for both the Democrats and the Republicans, but particularly for the governor and for Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick.
Spitzer, a Democrat, made it clear early on that he considered the special election a referendum on his agenda to reform Albany. He had a hand in selecting Johnson, a Nassau County legislator, to be the Democratic candidate, appeared with him in a television ad and helped him raise money.
Douglas Muzzio, a Baruch College political science professor, said it appears "round one goes to Eliot."
"Clearly, he put in all that effort staked to his early reputation and it looks like he's walking out a winner, particularly coming the day before they're going to name the comptroller," Muzzio said. "At the end of the day, he's going to win one and lose one, but this is a big win."
Spitzer is at war with the Assembly Democratic majority over selecting a replacement for former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who resigned in December after pleading guilty to a felony charge of defrauding the government after using state employees as aides to his wife.
The Assembly Democrats are poised to defy Spitzer's wishes today by rejecting three comptroller candidates selected by a screening panel and making one of their own members the state's top auditor.
"There could be no more fundamental dichotomy than the clear voice of the public calling out for reform and the failure of certain leaders to heed that call," Spitzer said Tuesday night. "I am here as the voice of the people...and my patience with leaders who fail to heed that call has run its course."
Asked whether he meant that there would be repercussions for the Assembly Democrats if they go ahead with their comptroller plans, Spitzer said he had just been "making an observation."
Spitzer also faces resistance to his first state budget in the Republican-controlled Senate, which is particularly critical of his plan to channel more school aid to poor, urban districts at the expense of wealthy downstate suburbs.
Bruno has been serving under a cloud since he lost a seat last fall to a Spitzer-backed Democratic candidate and then revealed that his outside business interests are under investigation by the FBI. Losing yet another seat would whittle his Republican majority to just two seats and could embolden those who covet his leadership post.
Bruno spent more than $650,000 from Senate Republican coffers on O'Connell's campaign. A former state assemblywoman, O'Connell is now Nassau County clerk. Bruno also received assistance from labor unions, including the powerful health care workers union SEIU/1199, which is gearing up for a battle with Spitzer over Medicaid spending cuts and reforms in his proposed executive budget.
Senate Democrats transferred more than $244,000 from their campaign committee to Johnson and also took out a $300,000 loan to help pay for the race. The labor-backed Working Families Party was one of Johnson's biggest supporters. The party received $165,000 from Johnson's campaign and $60,000 from Spitzer's own campaign committee to run Johnson's field operation.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, said last weekend that a win by Johnson could hasten the Democrats' efforts to wrest control of the Senate from the GOP by convincing as many as two Republican senators to switch sides.
But Bruno rejected that idea Tuesday, saying he had received personal assurances from the two senators considered prime candidates to switch -- Joseph Robach, a former Democrat from Rochester, and John Bonacic of New Paltz -- that neither plans to change allegiance.
The Democratic and Republican parties are on track to spend more than $5 million on this one-month campaign, making it the most expensive legislative race in state history. Benjamin can be reached at 454-5081 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.