News & Politics

Think You Understand The Depths Of Albany’s Dysfunction? Meet The Independence Party

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Last summer, a very curious arrangement was struck between the Independent Democratic Conference and the New York State Independence Party.

The Independence Party, one of several prominent third party organizations in New York, created a party committee and allowed State Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the eight-member IDC, to run it.

Klein is a registered Democrat, as are all members of the IDC. Despite their similar names, the IDC and Independence Party are completely separate entities.

It was the first time a minor party created a party committee to help a specific legislative conference. Suddenly, Klein was in possession of the same weapon the Senate Republicans and Democrats wield: a party housekeeping account with the ability to accept individual donations in excess of $100,000.

That arrangement recently bore fruit when campaign literature was sent out from the new committee boosting individual IDC members. Mailers were sent out in support of Jose Peralta, Marisol Alcantara, Jesse Hamilton and David Carlucci. One typical piece of mail, mailed on behalf of Hamilton in Brooklyn, boasts that “Our State Senator Hamilton and the other members of the Independent Democratic Conference are committed to ACTUALLY enacting a progressive agenda and pushing back on President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Democratic agenda, INSTEAD OF JUST TALKING ABOUT.” (The IDC says the Hamilton mailer, as well as all campaign-related materials, was paid for with a committee separate from their housekeeping account.)

There’s plenty of subtext in the caps lock. Because the IDC allied with Republicans in the Senate and once allowed the GOP, even when they lacked the members to form a majority, to control the upper chamber, protests have erupted against them. After years of skirting by with little notice, the IDC is now feeling the wrath of progressive activists and rank-and-file voters demanding the breakaway conference end its alliance with a party that supports Donald Trump.

The IDC’s committee arrangement with the Independence Party tests the limits of New York State law because party housekeeping accounts are not supposed to spend on individual races, something the IDC’s new committee already did in Alcantara’s primary last year. One prominent Democratic election lawyer told the Voice the IDC’s arrangement would be “vulnerable to challenge” in court.

The Independence Party itself, an ideologically bereft power player, adds a dubious wrinkle to the story. Led by Frank MacKay, a former nightclub owner and record producer known for hosting lavish lunches at Oheka Castle on Long Island, the party benefits from thousands of enrollees who have no idea they actually belong to a political organization, registering for the Independence Party under the belief that they are choosing to be independents. (In New York State, the correct way to do this is to mark yourself unaffiliated with any party.)

MacKay has argued the Independence Party is a vehicle for people dissatisfied with the two-party system and a means to break gridlock in Washington. He relentlessly promoted Michael Bloomberg’s phantom presidential bids and endorsed him for all three mayoral campaigns, granting the billionaire an extra ballot line for voters uncomfortable with picking a Republican. In turn, Bloomberg funneled more than $1 million their way.

Much of that money ended up in the pockets of Republican operative John Haggerty, who promised to set up an Election Day voting security operation for Bloomberg. Instead, Haggerty used the money to buy a house in Queens. He eventually went to prison.

As a rule, this is the game the Independence Party plays: you do something for us and we’ll do something for you. MacKay cozies up to whoever is in power, hedging his bets with Republicans and Democrats. Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the Nassau Democratic Party, blasted Governor Andrew Cuomo for taking their endorsement in 2014, calling the party a “political cesspool.”

Jacobs had a right to be furious because MacKay has been particularly friendly with Senate Republicans from Long Island, where the power of their conference is focused. In 2016, every single Long Island Republican scored the endorsement of the Independence Party.

In part, the IDC’s influence in the Senate is contingent on the survival of this suburban bloc uniformly hostile to big city interests. Were enough Democrats ever to win on Long Island, the GOP would be too enfeebled to form a majority with the IDC, forcing Klein to reconcile (or face punishment from) his old Democratic colleagues.

MacKay was an enthusiastic booster of the IDC-GOP alliance, praising the breakaway Democrats for producing “extraordinary bipartisan results” in the Senate.

“The IDC, led by Sen. Jeff Klein, one of New York’s most progressive reformers, offers New Yorkers an important counterbalance to extreme partisanship in New York State,” MacKay said in a statement to the Voice. “Common sense reforms are needed in Albany now more than ever, and the IDC is leading the way to get things done in a truly bi-partisan way.”

A spokeswoman for the IDC, Candice Giove, pointed out Democrats have happily taken the Independence Party’s endorsement before, which is true. Their minority leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, accepted their endorsement last year, as did Neil Breslin of Albany, Tim Kennedy of Buffalo and Martin Dilan of Brooklyn.

“It’s the right of the Independent Democratic Conference, like the Democratic, to have a campaign committee to support and defend its members,” Giove argued. “While the Independence Party supports a bipartisan slate of candidates, it’s disingenuous for divisive Democrats to rant about the IDC’s relationship to the Independence Party when Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins not only runs on the line, but donates hundreds of dollars to the Independence Party.”

The problem for the IDC is that, unlike the Democrats and the Republicans, they are not a political party and don’t have their own ballot line. When voters go to cast their ballots, all the IDC members are listed as Democrats, even though they’ve directly empowered a conservative party that almost all rank-and-file New York Democrats oppose.

And since they are not a party with their own ballot line, they are not necessarily entitled to the housekeeping account that the Independence Party has created for them. Because the State Board of Elections is toothless and our campaign finance law is so porous, the likely outcome will be an IDC operating with impunity.

For Albany, that’s business as usual.

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