National News

Elected on GOP Line, a Democrat Sits Alone

Posted May 2, 2018 11:13 p.m. EDT

ALBANY, N.Y. — Erik T. Bohen does not have cooties. He dresses well, sits up straight and comports himself like any other member of the state Assembly, the body to which he was elected late last month in a special election in Buffalo.

And yet, owing to the manner in which he was elected — as a Democrat running as a Republican — and to the hypercharged political climate in which he enters, Bohen has found himself marooned on a partisan island.

After arriving in the Assembly on Monday, Bohen discovered that his desk and chair were situated in a no man’s land, isolated from the Democrats, who dominate the chamber and occupy the entirety of its left-hand side, as well as being separated from his Republican neighbor by a narrow gap.

Bohen, 35, said he was a wee bit perplexed.

“I said, ‘This is a little strange, this desk.’ There’s nothing on the left, there’s nothing on the right. There’s just this trash can.”

A message, it seemed, had been delivered, one that Carl E. Heastie, the Assembly speaker, who is in charge of seating assignments, later elaborated on.

“It’s a challenge when people don’t get elected on the Democratic line but then want to sit with the conference,” Heastie said Wednesday, noting that when Bohen won his April 24 special election, a local Republican Party chairman appeared onstage with him. “I think the message that we want to send is that you should run as a Democrat and sit as a Democrat.”

“He tells me he’s a true Democrat,” he added. “But he’ll have to prove that.”

Such statements are not made in a vacuum in the Capitol. In the state Senate, the Republicans control the chamber by a single vote: That’s the one possessed by a Democrat, Simcha Felder, who nonetheless sits and caucuses with Republicans, giving them a crucial 32nd vote in a 63-seat chamber. (Felder, who says he is loyal to no party, also ran as a Republican, unopposed, in his last re-election campaign, in 2016.)

Heastie said his situation in the Assembly is entirely different, as Democrats hold an overwhelming numeric advantage, regardless of where Bohen sits or which party he votes with. But he also suggested that there were certain concerns among Democratic Assembly members about espionage inside their members-only meetings, in which he said “sensitive” issues were often discussed. “So there’s also a trust concern,” Heastie said.

Assemblyman Ray Walter, a Buffalo-area Republican, said he suspected the Democrats would eventually welcome Bohen back into the fold. “They’re trying to prove a point,” he said, adding that Bohen wasn’t really welcome in the GOP either, since he supports Heastie. “If he changes his mind, we’d certainly consider it.”

Bohen, who was a special-education teacher in a Buffalo elementary school before coming to Albany, concedes that he was backed by Republicans but said he ran with them only because the local Democratic Party rejected him in favor of another candidate in the 142nd District.

“I’m a very independent person,” he said while maintaining that he supports Heastie and wants to sit with the Democrats, even if the feeling isn’t mutual at the moment. “I’m still a man without a home.”

Bohen said that despite the seating situation, “everyone’s been extremely kind,” and that he had a nice office. “They’re not throwing me in the basement,” he said.

Like anyone who has ever sat alone in a high school cafeteria, Bohen also seems to recognize there are certain perks to being an outcast, saying it’s “almost like I’m a celebrity.”

And he’s already planned to decorate with desert-island desk ornaments.

“Next week,” he said, “I’m going to bring a little palm tree.”