Why Are 'Progressive' Legislators Supporting GOP-Loving Obstructionists?

IDC members, from left: Senators David Valesky, David Carlucci, Jeffrey Klein (standing), Tony Avella, and Diane Savino
IDC members, from left: Senators David Valesky, David Carlucci, Jeffrey Klein (standing), Tony Avella, and Diane Savino

On Tuesday, some of the city’s most prominent Democratic politicians celebrated the State Senate victory of Marisol Alcantara, a former Bernie Sanders delegate. Alcantara, the only woman who competed in a four-way Manhattan primary, is set to become the Senate’s lone Latina. Her patron, State Senator Adriano Espaillat, joyously dubbed this "the year of the woman." 

Espaillat, who is on the cusp of replacing Charlie Rangel in Congress, should have called 2016 the year of the Independent Democratic Conference. Alcantara said she will become the sixth member of the IDC, an obscure faction of Democrats that broke away from the Senate Democratic Conference in 2011.

For a two-year period, the IDC formed a power-sharing alliance with the Senate Republicans, propping up a GOP majority despite the numerical advantage of registered Democrats in the chamber. Robust increases in the statewide minimum wage were thwarted until this year, when a GOP-controlled Senate approved a watered-down, uneven hike that won’t get upstate New York to $15 an hour, unlike elsewhere. Twelve-week paid family leave, enacted this year, would have been possible years ago with a full Democratic majority, and without carve-outs for the entire public sector and a 2021 phase-in. With Alcantara now in the fold, the IDC leader, Bronx State Senator Jeffrey Klein, is talking up another alliance with the Republicans (they won back full control of the chamber in 2014), even though the presidential election is expected to boost Democrats across the state.

If you call yourself a progressive Democrat and endorse the idea of an empowered IDC, you are guilty of cognitive dissonance (at best) or pernicious self-interest (at worst).

This is not as popular an opinion in deep blue New York as you might think. Lis Smith, a Democratic operative who worked for Alcantara, chided "white progressives" on Twitter for criticizing Alcantara’s decision to join the IDC and trying to "diminish the voices of New Americans & ppl who support them."

Never mind that the IDC is funded by the likes of Roger Hertog, the right-wing financier who funneled $25,000 to their campaign committee last year, one of many white men who like the idea of a Republican-aligned conference. And forget that much of the Senate Democratic conference represents the largely low-income, nonwhite people Smith and Alcantara purport to care about. Also: the current five members of the IDC are white.

Elected officials who profess to be on the vanguard of progressive thought fell behind Alcantara, knowing full well she was joining a conference that has no qualms with supporting a Republican Party that safeguards the interests of Wall Street, wealthy suburbanites, and the real estate industry over the poor and working class of the five boroughs. Leaders in the City Council’s so-called progressive caucus, councilmembers Ydanis Rodriguez and Ritchie Torres, enthusiastically supported Alcantara, putting their own political interests over the future of long-lasting progressive change in the state. Public Advocate Letitia James, a Working Families Party darling, also fell behind Alcantara. Predictably, the gutless WFP endorsed no one in the primary, passing up the opportunity to back one of two candidates who promised to never join the IDC.

Espaillat never entered the IDC fold, but long enjoyed flirting with Klein. What’s behind his IDC fetish? It’s never been entirely clear, though it may be related to the MirRam Group, the powerful consulting and lobbying firm that has long counted Espaillat and Klein as clients. James, who employs a former MirRam operative as her chief of staff, is also a client of the firm, which was founded by former Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez and Luis Miranda, an ex–Ed Koch adviser now best known for being Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father. MirRam’s new campaign venture, the Hamilton Campaign Network, happens to be run by John Emerick, Klein’s former chief of staff.

The IDC is a tool for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Klein to each further their own interests. For Cuomo, a united Democratic Senate majority is a nightmare scenario: a centrist at heart, he belittled raising the minimum wage before it came back into vogue, ridiculed the idea of hiking taxes on wealthy people, and still won’t comply with a ten-year-old court ruling to fork over state cash to underfunded city public schools. These days, he playacts as a progressive Democrat, but would rather the Republicans or IDC govern the upper chamber so they can take the blame when left-wingers complain that he isn’t doing enough. As long as Democrats are warring with each other, Cuomo, an island of power, can keep dominating the legislature.

For Klein and his soon-to-be five minions, the perks are clear enough. He can take credit for progressive accomplishments under his reign like a phased-in $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, and strict gun control measures, ignoring the fact that regular Democrats endorsed all these things and would have passed them into law if they too sat in the majority. No matter what happens with the elections this fall, both conferences will need Klein to govern. The Senate is the last bastion of relevance for the ailing Republicans and they will be happy to do business again with Klein, a transactional moderate who shares Cuomo’s elite donors and passion for Machiavellian intrigue. Senate Democrats, desperate to leave the wilderness of the minority, will have to offer Klein’s cabal goodies to form a working majority. The IDC enjoyed committee chairmanships and much larger staff budgets during their days in power with the Republicans and will want the same in 2017. Despite the laughable idea of a leader of a conference of five negotiating the state budget with the governor and assembly speaker, Klein will want the same privilege next year. He’ll get it.

The genius of Klein is that he has deftly exploited a vacuum of Democratic leadership in New York. He understands there are no repercussions for trying to save the GOP, a party that eviscerated rent regulations and routinely resisted any serious campaign finance reform. He knows that there is no one out there to stop him, no Democratic cop walking the beat. Mayor Bill de Blasio, reeling from too many corruption investigations to count, is defanged. Chuck Schumer is too busy worrying about Washington. Labor unions only think in the short-term, and that means appeasing Klein. The others are willfully complicit or cowed by Klein’s growing clout.

If you’re a conservative Democrat, or just like the idea of checking the power of progressives, the IDC is a good thing. But if you’re one of many politicians who claims to support the working poor in this city, a Republican-aligned conference should be anathema to everything you hold dear.

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