The increasing probability that Republicans will lose control of the state Senate for the first time since the 1960s has pointed conversation in Albany to an intriguing topic of speculation: Once Joseph Bruno is dethroned, what would Democrats do with their power?
I posed that question to several Democratic lawmakers, and their responses suggest that the difference between the parties as it relates to legislative priorities is far more striking than one might assume given the leftward drift of Mr. Bruno.
In their appeal to voters, Republicans are promoting themselves as the last defense against an out-of-control, authoritarian governor.
The focus on Mr. Spitzer minimizes the extent to which Senate Democrats have a mind of their own and adhere to a political philosophy that, while overlapping with some of Mr. Spitzer's agenda, is more closely aligned with progressive social and fiscal policies.
An issue of great divide between Republicans and Democrats in Albany is rent control.
A decade ago, Mr. Bruno tried to eliminate rent control laws altogether, and last year his conference shot down a push by Democrats for new regulations that would have significantly slowed down the rate at which regulated apartments in the city are decontrolled and thus eligible for higher market rents.
Democrats told me they would renew that push and would also back a repeal of the so-called Urstadt law, passed in the Rockefeller era in 1971, which handed to Albany authority over New York City's rent regulation laws.
The shift on rent control would be one consequence of New York City becoming the Senate's geographic base of power. Another change ó and one suburban voters should pay attention to ó would be in the distribution of education aid. Senate Democrats would want to see more money going to New York City schools and less to Long Island districts.
In our conversations, Democrats repeatedly brought up the Rockefeller drug laws, the mandatory sentencing statutes for people convicted of non-violent drug crimes. "We would like to see the Rockefeller laws fixed so folks are not serving these extraordinary periods of prison for relatively minor matters," a Harlem Democrat, Bill Perkins, told me.
Democrats envision pressing for a repeal or a far more significant scaling back of the law than what was approved by Senate Republicans and Governor Pataki in 2004.
Upper East Side Democrat Liz Krueger predicted that the Senate "would become a pro-choice majority conference literally overnight," rallying behind Mr. Spitzer's Reproductive Health and Privacy Protection Act, which would protect and strengthen abortion rights in the state, even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
It's much less clear whether Senate Democrats, some of whose members tilt conservative on social issues, would immediately join the Assembly in legalizing gay marriage. At the very least, they would probably get behind a civil unions bill.
A Democratic take-over, Ms. Krueger said, would also effectively end the debate in the Legislature over whether to restore the state's death penalty.
After a spate of trooper shootings, Republicans last year demanded that Mr. Spitzer and the Democrat-controlled Assembly pass legislation that would revive New York's dormant death penalty statute in cases involving the murder of police officers and terrorists. "You won't hear the continued cry to bring back the death penalty," Ms. Krueger said.
Ms. Krueger also pointed to an issue where Senate Democrats and Mr. Spitzer don't see eye to eye: taxes. Her conference, she said, favors "a progressive and more equitable model of taxation," similar to the proposals championed by the union-backed Working Families Party.
Whereas Mr. Spitzer has refused to tinker with the state's income tax, Senate Democrats would likely seek to increase the rate for wealthier residents and perhaps lower it for those on the bottom of the ladder.
The Senate Democratic solution to the problem of rising property taxes may be to allow school districts outside of the city to raise revenue by taxing income instead of property, according to Bronx senator Jeff Klein, a rising star in his conference.
Democrats insist, however, they would demonstrate more fiscal restraint than their Republican counterparts, if only because they wouldn't face the same pressures to curry favor with voters as Republicans have in a Democrat-leaning state.
"You'll see a stronger commitment to fiscal responsibility," a Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan Democrat, Martin Connor, said. "They walk off with hundreds of millions of pork dollars. We don't need it. We're not trying to support an artificial majority. I don't need $5 million to buy my district in November."
As for the question of allegiance to Mr. Spitzer, who is clearly hoping that the Senate Democrats will be one problem he doesn't have to worry about, lawmakers left it open. "I don't think we're going to be yes men and women," Mr. Connor said.
In other words, Mr. Spitzer, who prides himself as a moderate Democrat, may be their patron, but he's not their master.