A Senate freshman in the center of Albany’s fights
Feature article in The Downtown Express
By Josh Rogers
Daniel Squadron didn’t bring Albany to a standstill for over a month, nor has he ever been arrested for domestic violence, but he nevertheless was one of the state senators making news this year in one of the most turbulent sessions in the Capitol’s history.
Squadron, who at 29 is the state’s youngest senator, was the first Democrat in the Senate to back renewal of mayoral control of schools with more oversight, and is one of the senators now pushing the decades-long effort to reform Albany’s system, which is routinely described as “dysfunctional.”
The “ dysfunction was worse than I ever imagined,” said Squadron, who unseated State Sen. Martin Connor last year on a campaign centered on fixing what he called a broken Albany system. He said this year’s session had two extremes. The stalemate, which ended two months ago, he said, was an embarrassment, but it also is leading to real change.
“The upside of the coup is it did allow us to move the ball further on reform,” he said.
State Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., the Senate’s new majority leader who has been criticized for ignoring campaign finance laws, created a 31-31 stalemate when he switched to the Republicans in June. But he couldn’t persuade his ally, Sen. Hiram Monserrate (now on trial accused of slashing his girlfriend), to stick with their defection to the G.O.P. Espada eventually came back to the Democrats in July after they promised him the leadership post.
In the course of several interviews with Downtown Express in recent weeks, Squadron, whose district includes all of Manhattan south of Canal St. and Downtown Brooklyn, avoided saying much about Espada.
“Getting back to business was critical and that was the way to do it,” Squadron said of Espada’s promotion. “John Sampson has effectively taken on the leadership role and I am very pleased about that.”
Sampson is expected to take the top post, president of the Senate, in January when some of the reforms Squadron helped get will take effect.
One change will give 32 senators the power to bring a bill to the floor even if it is opposed by the leadership.
Squadron hoped the rule would have taken effect earlier for bills like mayoral school control, which was difficult to get to the floor even though it ultimately passed with a vote of 47-8.
“What you saw was classic Albany, which is a bill was getting bottled up because for whatever reason, leadership decided to bottle it up,” he said.
It was a bruising battle for Squadron. “I listened to Sen. Squadron who seems to know a lot about schools and children,” Sen. Shirley Huntley said on the floor. “It’s amazing when he’s barely an adult himself.”
Huntley, whose district includes Jamaica, also said Squadron had a “vested interest” in the bill since his new wife works in the mayor’s office. Huntley did not returns calls for comment for this article. Squadron, for his part, did not criticize her at all, saying some senators may resent him for his age and his desire to speak up.
The school bill was also opposed by many parents Downtown and elsewhere. About 15 showed up Tuesday night to an education forum Squadron organized, and criticized him for sponsoring the bill.
“I hope you know what you’ve gotten yourself into,” said Tricia Joyce, a Tribeca parent active in Downtown’s school overcrowding issues.
Squadron says the renewal has important changes giving parents a stronger voice by granting the Community Education Councils more review and putting school superintendents back in the districts. The City Comptroller and City Council now have more oversight over school contracts and budgets, which will make the process more transparent, Squadron said.
Although most of the parents at the meeting disagreed with Squadron, many also thanked him for hearing them out.
“I really respect you,” Joyce said. “I voted for you. But I feel extremely concerned about what we have in front of us.”
Squadron said as a bill sponsor, he feels a particular responsibility to make sure the promised improvements are implemented. And he’s happy with the feedback at the forum.
“There’s a risk in this kind of conversation, but some of the people who were most frustrated, came up and said or e-mailed to say ‘thank you,’” he said.
One reason there was initial Democratic resistance in the Senate to school control is that Mayor Bloomberg is one of the chief donors to Senate Republicans. His endorsement of Squadron last year was a surprise move and Squadron credited it as one of the keys to his victory.
He may not return the favor. Squadron has been reluctant to endorse anyone in primaries and has not decided if he will endorse in the mayor’s race. He is also now willing on occasion to criticize Bloomberg.
Talking about schools in an interview, he began one sentence: “as much as the mayor seems like a permanent fixture in having completely flouted the will of the people to overturn term limits….” He was making the point that school control should be seen beyond one mayor and one chancellor, and that if you don’t give them authority to make changes, you can’t hold them accountable. But criticizing Bloomberg is also not a bad way to make friends with Senate Democrats.
Squadron’s next fight is an ethics and campaign finance bill and amendment he was confident was going to pass the Senate two weeks ago. The amendment failed when one Democratic senator was called away because of a death in the family. The Dems decided to pull the bill back, figuring it would be harder to get the campaign finance amendment passed separately. The amendment actually had majority support, 31–29, but in Albany’s Byzantine ways, that was not enough for passage since the majority of the entire Senate, 32, did not vote for it.
Squadron and other supporters expect the amendment will pass the Senate sometime this year, when a special session is expected to be called to close the budget deficit.
The amendment would set up an investigative unit under the Board of Elections to look into campaign violations.
In pushing reform, he’s gotten high marks from civic groups and from some of his colleagues who have also been pushing for change.
“Dan has been a very strong first time out of the box legislator,” said Sen. Liz Krueger. “He has been willing to take on the status quo.”
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, said it’s refreshing to see someone govern as he campaigned.
“He certainly carried the spirit of his campaign into the Senate,” she said. “That is unusual.”