Senator Squadron takes his leave

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Manhattan Democrat says farewell to the taint of Albany — but vows to remain active in politics, policy-making and the resistance


  • Former state Senator Daniel Squadron, who unexpectedly resigned his seat on August 11 after blasting the scourge of corruption in Albany. He is helping to launch a national reform movement to combat Trumpism. Photo: 26th State Senatorial District / Squadron

  • Former state Senator Daniel Squadron, who resigned his seat on August 11, at the Independence Plaza North Senior Center in downtown Manhattan in February. Photo: Madeleine Thompson

First, a sense of foreboding. “It’s been an honor to serve,” the August 9 letter began. Next, the familiar salutation, “Dear Friend.” Finally, the bombshell: “I have decided to resign from the Senate this Friday.”

A fast fadeout. A short, poignant goodbye. An early end to a promising career in public service? Well, not exactly. The next act is yet to come. “See you in the neighborhood,” the letter concluded. Signed, “Daniel.”

Thus did state Senator Daniel Squadron stun his constituents, shake up the political biosphere, announce his August 11 resignation and trigger a messy — and not at all democratic — firefight to anoint his successor. He also created a backlash against the way in which he stepped down.

Meanwhile, on his way out the door, he savaged political deal-making and the influence of big-money, blaming it for incubating corruption — and making New York a “particularly seedy example” among the states.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Squadron also unveiled a new career: He’s teaming up with Jeffrey Sachs, the celebrated Columbia University economist and ex-director of the Earth Institute, and Adam Pritzker, the fashion-brand investor and Hyatt hotel scion, to launch a movement to counter Trumpism.

Sound a tad vague? That’s because the trio hasn’t yet released plans or announced the name of its national reform initiative. Squadron said the group will advocate for stronger candidates, push policies at the state level, stand up for “core values” and “help turn the tide nationally.”

The 37-year-old, reform-minded, dyed-in-the-wool anti-Trumper, an architect of the Senate Democratic conference’s “resistance agenda” and a favorite of good-government groups, represented a liberal district encompassing Wall Street, Battery Park City, SoHo, Tribeca, Little Italy, and parts of the Village and Brooklyn.

A lifelong fan of the Beastie Boys and former top aide to U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, he introduced the first New York State $15 minimum wage bill, passed a measure to ban assault weapons in the state and got the Lunar New Year designated a public school holiday.

Signs of his restlessness had surfaced before. In 2013, he vied for public advocate, losing a runoff election to Letitia James.

Squadron’s unexpected adieu, from a safe seat he held for five terms and could easily retain for decades more, is markedly different from the typical Albany exodus — under a cloud of corruption, à la ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

He’s leaving voluntarily. That’s depressingly rare. His integrity has not been besmirched. Ditto. Sadly, as he acidly noted, virtually nothing has changed after separate scandals forced both pols to vacate their posts.

“The status quo has proven extraordinarily durable,” he wrote in an August 9 Daily News op-ed piece in which he disclosed he was stepping down. “It barely shuddered when the leaders of both legislative chambers were convicted of corruption.”

Squadron was only 28 when he toppled a 30-year incumbent in November 2008. Propelled by the Barack Obama political tide, swept up in the heady hope-and-change spirit of those days, he said he believed state government had the potential to better the lives of New Yorkers.

“I still do,” he opined. But then came the cri de coeur. Over the years, he wrote in The News piece, he has seen good governance “thwarted by a sliver of heavily invested special interests.”

Squadron cited “cynical political deals,” roadblocks to reform, festering corruption and hurdles that trip up rank-and-file legislators — among them, “three-men-in-a-room decision-making, loophole-riddled campaign finance rules and a governor-controlled budget process.”

New York may excel in mendacity. But other states, too, once viewed as “laboratories of democracy…have instead become petri dishes of corruption,” he wrote. “Rather than increase economic opportunity, they serve the opportunistic.”

Bottom line: States should step up to do more to “beat back President Trump’s corrosive priorities,” and Squadron, joining forces with Sachs and Pritzker, will support candidates and issues to do just that.

So a key question: What next for the 26th State Senatorial District he’s represented for the past decade? That’s where things start to get quite messy.

The next regularly scheduled election for the seat takes place in 2018. But now, there’s a vacancy in 2017. Unfortunately, what that means is that voters will have little to say about who gets to serve in the state Legislature.

Undemocratic? Absolutely. But it’s the law. And in this case, a good-government advocate set that process in motion.

Due to the timing of his resignation – late in the election cycle, past the deadline for the petitioning process that places candidates on the ballot – there will be no open and competitive party primary for the seat.

A primary would typically determine who runs on the Democratic and Republican lines. Instead, the political parties, not the voters, will pick the nominees, who will run in a special election on November 7 coinciding with the citywide general election.

Each party’s county committees, in Manhattan and Brooklyn in this case, and their respective chairmen, make the choice. In Tammany days, this was the classic closed-door-and-smoke-filled-room school of decision-making.

Practically, what it means to this day, is that mostly unknown political insiders and their clubhouses still retain supreme king-making power when an unexpected vacancy abruptly opens up in a non-election year.

Since Squadron’s district is heavily Democratic, his successor will effectively be anointed by the whims of just two men, Manhattan Democratic Chairman Keith Wright and Brooklyn Democratic Chairman Frank Seddio, who have considerable control over how their respective committees vote.

In other words, it’s more like a “coronation” than an election, says Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union.

Squadron didn’t return a call. But it’s unlikely the reformer has any illusions about the boss-driven process his resignation triggered:

He had proposed legislation — unsurprisingly, it never passed muster in Albany — that would have required a nonpartisan special election to fill a vacant state legislative seat.

It’s not happening. The party’s nominee, handpicked by the Wright-and-Seddio machines, will likely coast to victory in the November election. Only in 2018 will the winner finally face the will of the voters to secure reelection.

“The timing of my decision means the 26th District Senate seat will be filled in this November’s election,” Squadron wrote his constituents. “I remain committed to continuing to fight for an empowered Democratic majority.”

Who will reap the spoils? Squadron announced his resignation on the morning of August 9. Flash forward barely three or four hours. By early afternoon, state Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh had thrown his hat in the ring.

One of the six children of an Irish immigrant police officer, Kavanagh, first elected in 2006, represents an East Side district that includes Murray Hill, Tudor City, Kips Bay, Turtle Bay, Union Square and East Midtown Plaza.

In a statement, he pledged a “progressive, reform-minded” platform centered on affordable housing, better schools, rent protection, and economic and social justice.

The Democratic pol won’t be the only aspirant. Would-be Squadron successors include Taiwan-born state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who holds Silver’s old downtown seat; human rights lawyer Jenifer Rajkumar, director of immigration affairs at the New York Department of State, and Democratic district leaders Lincoln Restler and Paul Newell.

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