On Wednesday, State Senator Jose Peralta, a man who owes his seat in Queens to the very hard work of many volunteers and Democratic operatives who fought for their party to one day control the State Senate, joined the Independent Democratic Conference. He became the IDC’s eighth member, cementing the caucus as a fixture of New York politics for years to come and guaranteeing that a beleaguered, anti-everything Republican majority will always have a lifeline.
First, let’s acknowledge Jeff Klein’s savvy. Klein, a Bronx state senator and the IDC’s leader, is a cutthroat tactician, as brilliant as he is disingenuous. In 2011, he and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose courtly scheming belongs in the Niccolo Machiavelli Hall of Fame, concocted the IDC as a way to keep regular Democrats from ever attaining a full majority in the State Senate. Cuomo, a centrist Democrat at heart, liked the idea of thwarting liberals, and Klein knew he could never be majority leader of a conference that didn’t care for him much and would prefer to elevate a man or woman of color.
In 2013, there were enough Democrats, with the IDC’s assistance, to throw the Republicans out of the majority. Klein instead allied his conference with the GOP and locked Democrats out. He paid no political price, because New York is home to a remarkably spineless retinue of elected officials, particularly in the five boroughs.
Cut scene to 2017, and Klein’s humble conference of four has grown to eight. Its three newest members are black and Latino, lending sufficient cover for the four white men and one white woman who prefer to empower conservative Republicans from the suburbs and upstate at the expense of New York City. If you are a progressive in the city, and wonder why New York can’t have single-payer healthcare, grow its stock of rent-regulated apartments, or offer tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants, you can blame Senate Republicans.
Most troubling about a breakaway Democratic conference propping up Republicans is that it serves as a blueprint for other states where a threadbare GOP majority may look to save itself. Republicans everywhere should make a study of New York. In Washington State, Republicans also control their Senate with dissident Democrats, and it’s not too farfetched to imagine a few right-wing billionaires (the Kochs?) investing real money in trying to create similar arrangements elsewhere, once the opportunities presents themselves.
Most policy of real worth, after all, happens at the state level.
Thinking too hard about the composition of our Senate will make your brain hurt. There are 31 Republicans, 23 Democrats, and now eight IDC members. One conservative Democrat, Simcha Felder, caucuses with the GOP. Going into 2017, the IDC aligned itself with the GOP after Felder decided to remain with the Republicans. They have pointed out the Republicans could’ve formed a slim majority without the IDC, which is true. But it’s also likely true that a unified Democratic conference spending enough money could have made a difference in races Democrats narrowly lost to the GOP, like in the Long Island showdown between incumbent Senator Carl Marcellino and Democrat Jim Gaughran. Cuomo, too, did not open up his campaign war chest in any significant way for Democrats.
The IDC fancies itself a progressive caucus. With Cuomo’s belated efforts, it forced the Republicans to agree to eventually hike the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, no small feat. It passed a paid family leave program. Thanks to its status as a non-minority conference, the IDC has the budget to release headline-grabbing reports, and all members enjoy committee chairmanships or vice-chairmanships—extra salary for themselves and staff.
Klein’s staff has told me many times they are only stewards now because the Democrats were too incompetent in the two years they held the majority, from 2009 through 2010. That’s not incorrect, since the period was marked by remarkable dysfunction. But the primary actors from that era, with one exception, are all gone. The two majority leaders, Malcolm Smith and John Sampson, are prison-bound.
Today’s Democratic conference, if milquetoast and uninspiring, is scandal-free. But the minority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, would do no worse than John Flanagan, the GOP majority leader, and Klein. New York’s Republican conference remains solely in power thanks to terribly gerrymandered districts rubberstamped by Cuomo in 2012 and the IDC’s gamesmanship. This is a Democratic state and Republicans don’t deserve to lead. A unified Democratic majority could accomplish all of the IDC’s progressive goals and do even more.
So what do Senate Democrats do now? Some have pointed out they have nothing but their own inept leadership to blame, and that Peralta simply wanted to get more done with an influential conference. Should Stewart-Cousins grovel to Klein and promise that one day, she will support him for majority leader in exchange for Democratic unity? Maybe, but given how Klein has twisted the knife, who could blame her for not coming to him on bended knee?
As I’ve argued before, Klein has skillfully exploited a vacuum of Democratic leadership in New York. No city or statewide elected official—Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Tish James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, the entire City Council and most of the borough presidents—or labor union has thoroughly resisted the reality of a breakaway Democratic conference aiding Republicans. Some, like James, even endorse candidates pledged to the IDC. They’ve learned it’s far easier to rail about conservatives in abstract than take any meaningful action.
Now the IDC is all but unbeatable. Expect them to keep adding members and calling the shots. Klein is only 56. Nothing will keep him from playing his game as long as he wants.