Abandoned and alone: Skeleton crews staff Albany's vacant seats

New York state Capitol
New York state Capitol
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Abandoned and alone: Skeleton crews staff Albany's vacant seats

Until Cuomo holds special elections, nearly 1.8 million New Yorkers will remain unrepresented
January 22, 2018

There are nearly a dozen vacant seats in the New York state Legislature that will remain empty until Gov. Andrew Cuomo calls for special elections to fill those seats. Until then, nearly 1.8 million New Yorkers will remain unrepresented, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group. For now, this leaves residents accustomed to seeking help from their elected representatives with unanswered calls and locked doors.

Many of those lawmakers’ offices in Albany and across the state are largely uninhabited and silent. A walk through the Legislative Office Building on a weekday in January found that 10 of 11 offices were either empty and stripped of signage or another legislator had moved in. On most offices, the only signs that a lawmaker worked there are a pile of fliers from advocates, the room number, and strips of dried glue on the wall where name placards once named the district’s representative.

“They’re gone,” said one legislative staffer.

Most, but not all.

Former state Sen. George Latimer’s Albany office door was open, with the two remaining employees – Kathy Pettograsso, director of Albany operations, and Pete Loughran, legislative director – holding down the fort. There’s one additional employee in the district office, they said.

In all, the two vacant state Senate districts, where a combined 625,000 people lack representation, are retaining 11 staffers. While three of Latimer’s former staffers are still punching in, all eight of former state Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr.’s remaining employees are in the district office.

In the Assembly, there are nine vacant seats, leaving 1.1 million people without representation.

The offices for the five vacant seats previously held by Republicans are closed, with no staffers, according to Michael Fraser, a spokesman for the Assembly minority.

The Assembly Democrats, however, are maintaining skeleton crews. Conference spokesman Michael Whyland said there was one staffer in every vacant Democratic office, except for Assemblyman Michael Kearns, whose office stands empty. Abandoned by their former bosses, who have gone on to other legislative, executive and judicial positions, these staffers now report to the Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who signs their checks.

Many of the phone numbers for the Albany offices of the vacant Assembly seats appeared disconnected, while others went to voicemail, proclaiming Assembly members that no longer hold those positions.

The phone numbers for Lupinacci’s and Graf’s district offices connected a caller to nearly identical voicemail messages that gave constituents information about contacting their state senator.

“The New York state Assembly has ordered this office be closed and reopened following a special election that will be held early 2018,” both messages said. Assembly Democratic offices remain open, however, and Cuomo has not yet called for any special elections, and is not required to by law.

State Senate Democratic spokesman Gary Ginsburg said the staffing gaps demonstrate the need for speedy special elections.

"Legislative offices remain open and functioning, even when Legislators resign to accept other positions. Constituents still require assistance from these offices, though the sooner vacancies are filled, the better,” Ginsburg said in a statement. “That is why it is so important to call for Special Elections as soon as possible, so all New Yorkers are again fully represented in the State Legislature.”

One staffer who answered the district phone for a former Democratic Assembly member confirmed that he was the only one working for the office, but said that he wasn’t sure how long he would be in this position and requested anonymity because he did not know if he was allowed to speak to the press.

Another Assembly Democratic staffer who answered the phone in a district office said that she was not handling casework, but was passing along calls to the two state senators that overlapped with the district. She had composed a “comprehensive write-up” detailing leftover constituent cases to send to the state senators’ offices as well. She too requested anonymity because she didn’t know if she had permission to speak on the record.

“We wanted to make sure no one fell through the cracks,” she said. The staffer said she doesn’t know how long she will be in this position, and that that was a decision for the Assembly speaker. “Being here until an election is called is probably not necessary,” she said.

For the time being, district offices like the one for state Senate District 32 are keeping the lights on.

Leila Martinez, director of operations for Diaz, said in an interview in early January that the district office was still employing eight staffers to help an estimated 40 to 50 people a day.

“That’s people coming to the office,” Martinez clarified. “That’s not the calls.”

“If you are here at 8 a.m., there’s already a line outside,” she added.

The district office was especially busy during the cold snap at the beginning of the month that left many city residents without heat and hot water.

“Nothing changed. Nothing has,” Martinez said of the day-to-day constituent services the district office provides in the absence of a senator. “But people are asking where he’s at.”

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.
Grace Segers
is City & State’s digital reporter. She writes daily content on New York City and New York state politics.