Scott Stringer, the city comptroller who dreams of becoming mayor, was asked about the Independent Democratic Conference at a recent town hall on the Upper West Side. “I believe that people who are elected as Democrats should be caucusing with Democrats,” Stringer said, according to a video posted by an activist. “The way we do things is, there’s a Democratic way and a Republican way and let’s make no mistake, in the Trump Republican era, we need Democrats to stand for Democratic principles and ideas.”
It was the type of question that probably wouldn’t have been posed to Stringer before Donald Trump was elected president in November, back when the local political scene was left to the diehards and the various interest groups scrapping for their budget crumbs. To discuss the IDC with even the most educated and politically engaged New Yorkers was to elicit a blank stare or a tentative query for more information. Wasn’t IDC just text-speak for “I don’t care”?
Stringer’s answer drew cheers from the crowd and a “hear, hear” from the activist who recorded the video and posted it to Twitter. Anti-IDC groups like Rise and Resist and No IDC NY have organized protests against the breakaway conference’s eight members and taken to social media to denounce them at every turn. As New York’s Democratic political class mostly enabled or ignored the IDC’s alliance with conservative Republicans in the senate, activists galvanized by Trump’s terrifying rise to power turned their eyes to their own backyard, where they found many things that didn’t quite smell right.
If New York was such a Democratic state, a supposed bulwark against Trump, why did eight Democrats choose to partake in a power-sharing agreement with Republicans? Why was Governor Andrew Cuomo supporting this? Why did it take until 2017 for New York to join 48 other states and stop trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults?
The new calculus for ambitious and crowd-conscious local elected officials is fast becoming how much should they support or distance themselves from the IDC, originally formed in 2011 to give four Democrats a lot more bargaining power in Albany. Before Trump, it was easier to ignore the breakaway conference entirely because few people really cared. The senate Democrats, locked in the minority even after picking up more than enough seats in 2012 to finally control the upper chamber, could scream bloody murder, but they were only senate Democrats. Better for the various labor unions and influential Democrats to appease the IDC leader, Senator Jeff Klein, and not say too much to irk Cuomo, who helped nurture the IDC into existence to soothe his triangulating soul.
No matter the progressive accomplishments the IDC touts (“If there is a litmus test, the IDC will pass with flying colors,” said Candice Giove, the IDC’s spokeswoman), it remains true that there was no way senate Republicans could have held the majority in 2013 and 2014 without Klein’s help. The senate math today is murkier, but it’s possible that by the end of May, with the help of a conservative Democrat from Brooklyn who caucuses with the GOP and has expressed interest in returning to the Democratic fold, the numbers will be there to form a numerical majority. One can only imagine what a united Democratic conference — Klein is a prolific fundraiser who has never used any of his campaign cash to help defeat Republicans — would be able to do against an aging Republican conference fast running out of reliable voters.
For Democrats in New York looking to cater most to the people who show up to vote in primaries, learning to grow a backbone against the IDC may be mandatory. Public Advocate Tish James, often at the vanguard of the left, has encountered backlash online for supporting one of the IDC’s newest members, Marisol Alcantara, in a primary last year. Carl Heastie, the Speaker of the assembly and former chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party, is apparently fed up with the IDC, according to a Daily News report. If there is one man who can make Klein sweat in the Bronx, where he’s erected a fiefdom and cultivated allies, it’s Heastie, who leads a conference getting weary of watching priorities like ethics reform and the DREAM Act die in the senate.
The test may become rather simple: What have you done to make the senate more Democratic? Maybe James, when she inevitably runs for mayor in a few years and finds herself stumping in the liberal Democratic clubs of northern Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, will have to find a new answer to that question. Maybe Stringer will have to do more than just call for Democrats to support Democrats; maybe he will have to name-check the IDC directly and campaign for its members’ primary challengers. Maybe the next candidates for City Council Speaker will have to be a little less silent about the Democratic betrayal in their backyard. Given that so much of what happens in New York City depends on the whims of people in the state legislature hostile to the city’s very existence, this test isn’t too much to ask for.