Changing New York Political Winds Could Affect MMA Sanctioning

Madison Square GardenPolitical pundits expect the 2010 mid-term elections to usher in a wave of Republican gains in both national and local races. According to the influential New York Times political blog FiveThirtyEight, which aggregates polling data to predict races, New York will not be one of the states to go from blue to red, at least on a gubernatorial level. According to their statistical models, Democrat Andrew Cuomo has a 99.8 percent probability of defeating Republican Carl Paladino.

As the last man to sign off on or veto laws, the candidate elected on Nov. 2 will play a major role in the possible sanctioning of mixed martial arts in The Empire State. Unfortunately, neither has yet to take a formal stance on the legalization of the sport.

Robin Wolfgang, press secretary for Paladino, told MMA Fighting the campaign does not have a position on the topic.

"Unfortunately as a candidate we can only take a position on some big key issues, but as governor we would have more resources to research and comment on everything that affects the lives of New Yorkers," she said.

Meanwhile, Cuomo's campaign did not return messages asking for comment, though The New York Post reported earlier this month that UFC parent company Zuffa Entertainment has donated nearly $75,000 to the Cuomo war chest this election cycle.

The bigger battle for the legalization of the sport, however, is fought at the level of the state assembly, where Bob Reilly has gained a level of notoriety in the MMA world as the sport's most vocal opponent.

Reilly, a Democrat from New York's 109th district, is a member of the Assembly's Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development Committee that initiates legislation that affects tourism. Yet, he's hardly its most influential. In fact, the chair of the committee, Steven Englebright -- like Reilly, a Democrat -- has twice sponsored legislation that would legalize MMA in New York, and despite Reilly's objections, the bill has passed out of that committee both times.

Though the bill has passed one obstacle on two separate occasions, it has eventually stalled out as the result of what is reported to be internal debate among Democrats in the state Assembly.

Though Reilly has become public enemy No. 1 among MMA fans hoping to see the sport in New York, according to some, the biggest hurdle in the fight to sanctioning is Sheldon Silver, the 64th district representative and Speaker of the Assembly who both The New York Times and The New York Post call "the most powerful man" in the state capital.

Just how crucial is Silver to New York's legislative process? Dr. Douglas Muzzio, a professor at New York's Baruch College and longtime political analyst, told MMA Fighting, "Nothing happens legislatively in the New York State Assembly" without Silver's OK.

"He rules the body," he said. "If he wanted it for whatever reasons, for political partisan reasons, policy reasons, financial reasons, if he wanted it, it would happen."

Officially, Silver has no position on MMA.

"Because we're a committee-driven house, he generally doesn't comment on bills before they're in committee process," his spokesperson Sisa Moyo told MMA Fighting.

Privately, however, Silver and Reilly are said to be relatively closely aligned, and the campaign of Reilly's 2010 opponent Jennifer Whalen claims that Reilly votes with Silver 97 percent of the time.

That differs from Silver's relationship with Cuomo, which according to news reports, is expected by many to be contentious should Cuomo win the governorship as expected. [Meanwhile, It is virtually guaranteed Silver will win his own election, running against a candidate, Joan Lipp, who has essentially admitted defeat.]

Cuomo is largely running on a reform agenda that could lead to major back-room battles, even among fellow Democrats. There have been suggestions that Cuomo may try to unseat Silver as speaker, a move which would greatly change the dynamic of Albany politics.

"In the larger political sense there is the possibility you'll have a collision given Cuomo's stated positions and Shelly's acted-on positions," Muzzio said. "Shelly's a wiley politician and Andrew is a sophisticated political animal. They may avoid a train wreck but a train wreck is possible. They're both Democrats, that's true. They'll have some common interests but also some conflicting interests. And we may end up with a fight on our hands."

A power struggle could prove disastrous for New York, which has already endured paralyzing state budget battles in recent years. As a result, the state has had to focus on major issues at the expense of things considered less important yet fruitful business, like MMA sanctioning.

"To be frank, it's not on the public's agenda or the legislature's agenda," Muzzio said. "There are so many other issues and concerns. I haven't had one conversation with someone in state-level politics where that's a topic of conversation. It could be because of my limited conversation, but I don't see it. Not only is it below the radar, it's underground almost because of all the other stuff going on."

Still, there are power players in the state who have voiced a support for the sport, including Gov. David Paterson, state athletic commission chairwoman Melvina Lathan, Madison Square Garden Sports, the state senate -- which passed a bill sanctioning the sport in 2010 before the Assembly blocked the measure -- and even former Gov. George Pataki, the man who originally signed a bill outlawing MMA in 1997.

And if makes MMA fans feel any better, Bob Reilly is seeking his fourth term in New York's 109th district. His opponent, Republican Jennifer Whalen, has already voiced a support for legalizing MMA. And it's said to be the political fight of Reilly's life.

Regardless of whether Cuomo wins as expected or Paladino pulls off a miracle, the power wielded by Silver is likely to continue to be the X-factor in MMA's sanctioning struggle.

"If I were to point to someone who was the determiner of it happening or not in the Assembly, it's Sheldon Silver," Muzzio said. "Pure plain and simple, nothing happens in that body unless he supports it."

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