Netflix’s ‘The Politician’ brings Albany politics to small screen

ALBANY – For lovers of political drama, there’s no shortage of television shows that try to strike the sweet balance between government and theatre – but most of the time, the plot stays in Washington, D.C.

No shade to “Scandal,” “House of Cards” or “The West Wing” – but anyone who works in Albany politics knows there’s more than enough drama to last several seasons. Season two of Netflix’s “The Politician” gives a small insight into the New York political sphere, setting the stage for main character Payton Hobart – who, in season one, was a candidate in an intense race for high school president – to step up his political game in a run to unseat the very tenured leader of the New York state Senate, Dede Standish.

Hobart, played by Ben Platt, is a 20-something college student at New York University with big dreams of one day becoming president. So his baby step – in the show, and not so much in real life – was a primary contest against Standish, played by Judith Light, a veteran senator representing the 27th state Senate District in upper Manhattan.

The campaign teams are simple: Hobart has his group of high school friends and confidants, while Standish has her trusty, ruthless chief of staff, Bette Midler’s Hadassah Gold.

Standish and Gold, polling well, easily brush off their young opponent at first – before they find themselves caught in the drama of Standish’s “throuple” coming to light, alongside a number of other scandals that threaten her seat. Plus, the candidates wrestle with the dynamic of a strong incumbent versus a political neophyte – and the show never misses an opportunity to note that many of Standish’s voters are establishment Democrats, while Hobart is riling up a young generation of first-time voters who care deeply about climate change.

“It was entertaining as hell,” said state Sen. Brad Hoylman, the real-life senator who represents the 27th district. “I wish my life in the 27th district were as glamorous and full of drama … and laughter as this season was.”

The end of the show’s first season last fall had hinted that Hobart was headed into a race in Albany, but Hoylman had a front-row seat in the making of the season. It started last year, when someone had sent him a photo of a state Senate seal in lower Manhattan labeled with the 27th district. Hoylman called Senate Services to ask what was up – that’s Sen. Brian Kavanagh’s district, not his – “and then I realized it was part of the set, so they certainly had me fooled leading up to the launch of the series.”

He later received a call from Midler and met up with her in October to give her the low-down on the New York political scene.

“She was fascinated by the intricacies of Albany politics,” Hoylman said. “I told her about the Bear Mountain Compact – which did not make it into the series – as well as what that kind of push-and-pull relationship is like with a longstanding chief of staff.”

The compact, of course, refers to the unofficial consensus among state lawmakers that what happens in Albany stays in Albany – including extramarital affairs or other embarrassing personal escapades. To be fair, it’s quite a relevant concept for a state senator involved in a throuple (that’s a three-person relationship, for those out of the know).

The show, like most other political dramas, is far from a perfect portrayal of Albany politics. Spoiler alert: After a vicious campaign cycle involving several interactions with a very available New York Times reporter, the election ends in a tie, which the candidates decide to resolve through a game of rock-paper-scissors. State law actually dictates that a tie would lead to a run-off election, not a game of chance.

“As a candidate, you notice things – like your profession is not listed on the ballot, as Hayden’s was ‘student,'” Hoylman said. “I think the series showed voters being registered the weekend prior to the election – if only we had that kind of flexibility with our voting rules.”

Not to mention several characters, supposedly embedded in Albany politics, mispronounced the name of the state capital – come on, everyone in New York knows it’s “Awl-buh-nee,” not “Al-buh-nee.”

But there are also some things the show got right: “There was one moment where Bette Midler is defending Judith Light’s character, and Hadassah Gold says about Sen. Standish: ‘She’s fought for LGBTQ rights and passed legislation to get garbage trucks off of side streets,’ which, literally, are two things that I have attempted to do,” Hoylman said.

And he praised the show for highlighting the youth voting bloc, a growing group of progressives in New York City rallying around young candidates who promise to shake up the Democratic establishment. The early results of Tuesday’s primary election showed just that.

“It’s must-see TV for anyone who works in Albany,” Hoylman said.