Picture of Sen. Jeff Klein and former Sen. Malcolm Smith from Smith’s Flickr account.
As legislators enjoy their time away from Albany this week, forces including prominent union heads and activists are looking to drive the Independent Democratic Conference back to the mainstream Democratic Conference. Two legislative sources told The Alt they expect this week will be critical in efforts to entice the IDC to end their deal with Republicans–partly due to backroom efforts by union heads, activists and “heavy hitters” in the Democratic Party and partly due to intense protests planned by activists in IDC member districts.
Last week Brian Benjamin won a special election in Harlem, giving Democrats a technical majority in the Senate. That development came on the heels of a scandal surrounding the Senate Republican and IDC’s use of lulus to pay members for committee work they didn’t actually do and a mounting display of grassroots protests against IDC members in their districts. The Working Families Party had already publicly demanded the IDC return to the mainline Democrats. On Friday, all 18 Democrats representing New York State in the House of Representatives called on the IDC to rejoin Democrats. “The people across New York State have spoken and their wishes should be honored,” read the letter. “Now is the time for all Democrats to return to the Democratic conference to work collaboratively to benefit all New Yorkers.”
National Democrats are focused on winning back state houses from Republicans; they were recently introduced to the odd arrangement in New York’s Senate after Rep. Keith Ellison, deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, tweeted a picture of himself with NY Sen. Marisol Alcantara–who won election last fall and joined the IDC after being endorsed by Rep. Adriano Espaillat. Espaillat had been friendly with the IDC during his time in the Senate and thanks to IDC Sen. Jeff Klein’s financial support was able to choose his successor in the Senate. The backlash to Ellison’s tweet was enormous.
Ellison was blasted by Democratic activists for supporting an IDC member. Espaillat was one of the House members calling on state Senate Democrats to unify.
Some Democrats and activists are nervous about pushing reunification at this point in the year. Session ends in June, and two Senate Democrats are running for unrelated seats. If they win, Democrats will be down by two members until special elections are held. Some see an advantage in waiting to push reunification until closer to the 2018 election, when challenges to IDC members will solidify and Democrats will be rallying to win Congressional seats.
Right now it appears Democrats are hoping to push Klein into a similar arrangement as he currently enjoys with Senate Republicans. However, early indications are that Klein is hesitant to work with Democrats if his rival Sen. Michael Gianaris is leading the Democrats. “We’ve got to be able to choose our guy. Just like Republicans got to choose theirs. It doesn’t matter if Jeff’s got a grudge,” said one Democratic legislator.
Some Senate Democrats are worried individual IDC members may try to rejoin them–creating a situation that increases tensions with the rest of the IDC and makes the situation harder to manage. “Would we want them? Could we trust them?” asked one Senate Democrat.
The IDC has responded to mounting pressure in a particularly transparent and nonsensical way–demanding Democrats “Call the Roll” on issues like the Gender Expression Non Discrimination Act that would guarantee people of all gender identities equal protection under the law and The DREAM Act, which would provide financial aid to undocumented students looking to attend college. Their point seems to be that not all members of the Democratic conference support these issues. And that is certainly true. However, a poll of Republicans would almost certainly show far fewer of their members support the issues–in fact many of their members ran against just those issues. Many Republicans the IDC partners with are wholehearted Trump supporters.
The “Call the Roll” campaign appears to be a blatant admission that the IDC would rather destroy Democrats than ever work with them. Klein, reportedly steaming over the lulu scandal, recently told a room of Democrats and Republicans that he will ensure Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan remains in power for the foreseeable future.
Democrats insist the lulu scandal is actually a distraction from the real problem the IDC faces. “The zeitgeist has changed, voters are under attack from the Orange Madness and bipartisanship isn’t something they value right now. They want us to stand up for them. They want us to get to work protecting them from the Orange Madness,” said Sen. Gustavo Rivera referring to President Donald Trump.
Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action New York and a member of the WFP said that the IDC’s response has been telling. “I think the IDC’s response shows that this is all personal–it isn’t about helping people it is about personal gain or personal animosity. It’s time to put that aside and do what’s best for the people of NY and rejoin the Democratic Conference.”
Klein may very well decide not to rejoin the Democrats–the bitterness between him and a number of Democratic Senators may be too much for him to quash. Tainted, weakened and dressed down, the IDC may crawl forward, but they will do so having been exposed, with very few New Yorkers referring to them as Democrats with a straight face. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has failed to comment on the situation and who has failed to use the State Democratic Party to support Senate Democrats, may decide to shield Klein and his cronies.
If he does, Cuomo will be forced to totally own the IDC and its cynicism that has been laid bare for the country to see. It seems almost certain the IDC will lose members in the 2018 elections–and Cuomo doesn’t like losers. He likes political headaches even less, and it appears unlikely he will want to pursue his rumored presidential ambitions having failed to unite Democrats in his own state.