The Independent Democratic Conference pledged to disband and join rank-and-file Democrats in a hastily called press conference put together by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday. The announcement and the details were a surprise to the regular Democrats who have been repeatedly thwarted by Klein in reunification efforts since the IDC was founded in 2011.
Cuomo framed the deal as an effort to make Andrea Stewart-Cousins the first black-female majority leader. There a lot of unknowns here–some of the main players remain in the dark. But the entire concept of making Stewart-Cousins majority leader and putting Democrats in charge of the Senate rests on the Democrats winning two special elections scheduled for April 24 and convincing rogue Brooklyn Senator Simcha Felder to join the conference.
Here are 8 things to pay attention to as this concept becomes a reality:
Will there be retaliation? Part of the arrangement that saw the IDC and Republicans work together so well was a set of perks awarded to the IDC that are particularly unusual for a minority conference. IDC members currently hold a number of committee chairmanships and some are also paid stipends as if they were chairs even though they are not.
The office of Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli put a stop to those payments just this week. Republicans could make life a little harder on the IDC and prevent any of their bills from coming to the floor. The question is: How does Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan perceive this new Democratic deal? Klein and Cuomo have agreed to a form of reunification before, during Cuomo’s last campaign, only to back out after Cuomo secured victory. Is it worth it for Flanagan to alienate Klein when they could still have a future together and the elections have yet to be determined?
Staffing: Former IDC head Jeff Klein has surrounded himself with smart and loyal staffers. These are staffers who have done bitter battle with Senate Democrats for years now. Will they be integrated? If so what positions will they get? What kind of influence will they have? These are staffers with high-level experience in budget negotiations and successful policy pushes. The mainline Democrats probably need them, but can they trust them? One popular notion is that the executive chamber will be the landing spot for a lot of these former IDC staffers. It wouldn’t be surprising as Cuomo has hired from the IDC and Senate Republicans before. Cuomo spokesmen Richard Azzopardi and Jason Elan are both former IDC staffers.
Leadership: Senate Democrats were shaken out of their post-budget vacation by news that they would be joined by the IDC. The deal would see Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins become Democratic leader with Klein as deputy–taking over the role from his bitter rival Sen. Michael Gianaris. Gianaris replaced Klein as head of the Senate Democratic fundraising operation in 2010 after a disastrous year for Senate Democrats across the state. Many saw Klein as using his the Democrat campaign coffers to support candidates loyal to him rather than ones who could win and help the conference as a whole. A number of Democrats say they are concerned to have Klein as deputy leader due to issues of trust and their belief that Klein can’t help himself but to try to undermine Stewart-Cousins. A number of Senate Democrats also see Klein as a proxy and mole for Cuomo. Cuomo was able to wave his hand and command Klein to abandon the IDC. What does that say for his future ability to dictate policy positions?
Elections: Pressure has been mounting against the IDC for months as more prominent officials have endorsed their primary opponents. On March 29, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer endorsed primary opponents to IDC Senators Marisol Alcantara and Jose Peralta.. The Working Families Party has pledged to continue supporting IDC primary challengers despite the reunion. In the last gubernatorial primary, the WFP backed off support of IDC primary challengers they had a hand in recruiting after New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio negotiated a truce between Cuomo and the WFP. Of course, Zephyr Teachout, who sought the WFP’s nomination and was supported by many of its members, continued with her primary challenge to Cuomo. Continuing those primaries could serve as an insurance policy for Senate Democrats. It could also create tension within the conference. And the IDC may go ahead and primary sitting Senate Democrats as they have in the past. If Dems continue to work against each other, it increases the odds Senate Republicans can maintain a thin majority or keep Democrats from achieving one.
Felder: Sen. Simcha Felder, an elected Democrat who basically does whatever the hell he damn well pleases, has said, “I’m only loyal to God, my wife and my constituents.” He currently empowers Senate Republicans, and it seems unlikely that the current political winds will push him towards the Democrats–unless some poll tells him otherwise. However, it is clear he is power hungry and loves the spotlight. Perhaps Democrats could offer him a chairmanship–although he already chairs the Senate’s committee on cities. Luring him back in such a way would also likely bring back memories of the Democrats’ brief time in the majority in 2009 when they traded major positions and perks to disloyal Democrats who bred chaos. Some of them eventually bolted to join the Republicans anyway.
Klein: “It’s not like Jeff is just going to give up power willingly without having something else going on. What is that something else? We don’t know yet. But we’re sure as hell keeping our eyes open,” one Democratic legislator told me on Wednesday, hours after the unity press conference. It’s long been rumored that Klein wants to run for Attorney General, but that seems particularly far-fetched this year as current Democratic Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched high-profile moves against the Trump administration while being highlighted more frequently in national media. (Klein has also been vilified by Democratic groups across the state and faces an accusation of sexual harassment.) Has Cuomo offered Klein a soft landing? Is there an administration appointment Klein might want? Higher office? If he plans to use the Senate as his launching point then he is going to have to make some power moves (which he is very accustomed to making).
Senate Democrats: Yes, some Senate Democrats have endorsed Gov. Andrew Cuomo and will back him wholeheartedly regardless of the results of the unity deal–it just makes sense for many upstate and western New York Democrats. However, it will be interesting to watch whether city-based Democrats come on board for Cuomo. The governor has barely lifted a finger to campaign for any of them since becoming the leader of the Democratic Party. He has also bragged to Republicans about that very fact during budget negotiations. If more progressive Democrats see weakness they could throw their support behind Cynthia Nixon’s primary. What would it do for them? It would anger the governor—but they’ve never had his support to begin with. Their endorsements might not mean an immense amount in the scheme of things, but they strengthen Nixon’s claim that Cuomo is a Republican in sheep’s clothing.
Cuomo’s Blessing: If Felder remains obstinate and Democrats are left looking to pick up seats during the general election, what will Cuomo do on the campaign trail? Will he be out campaigning for Senate Democrats? Will he try to protect incumbent IDC members from WFP-backed primary campaigns? Will the friction from that situation blow up the entire deal?