News & Politics

Harlem’s New State Senator Vows Not To Join Breakaway Democrats

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Democrats once more achieved a numerical majority in the state senate with the election Tuesday of Brian Benjamin in Manhattan.

A year ago, a local special election would have been ignored, even with the makeup of the senate at stake. New York liberals, with their security blanket of a Democratic president and a governor they had learned to tolerate, didn’t care to fret about legislative minutia.

This time, of course, it’s different.

Benjamin, filling the Harlem seat vacated by Bill Perkins, has vowed not the join the Independent Democratic Conference, the eight-member breakaway faction that has been aligned with senate Republicans for more than four years.

The IDC plans to remain in a power-sharing alliance with the GOP, blaming a conservative Brooklyn Democrat, Simcha Felder, who caucuses with the Republicans and allows them to control the chamber. Never mind that Felder has said he’s willing to go back to the Democrats if the IDC does so first.

“This election means there are 32 elected Democrats in the senate and offers Democratic Minority Leader [Andrea] Stewart-Cousins and Senator [Michael] Gianaris the opportunity to demonstrate that they can convince 23 Democratic senators to vote for women’s right to choose,” said IDC spokeswoman Candice Giove. “It’s an opportunity for them to call the roll.”

Meanwhile, Democrats across the city are now regularly protesting the IDC’s very existence. The group’s three newest members, all hailing from heavily Democratic New York City districts, are virtually guaranteed competitive primaries next year. Active anti-IDC chapters have sprung up in almost every borough.

What’s fascinating about this moment is how New York’s typically risk-averse political class is bowing to such grassroots pressure. Last year, Public Advocate Tish James, a proud liberal, endorsed one of the IDC’s newest members, Marisol Alcantara. She was happy to defend her decision well into this year. But at a meeting of Brooklyn progressives last night, she all but disavowed Alcantara, who went from being a Bernie Sanders delegate to empowering the sort of conservative, upstate Republicans who are anathema to what the Vermont socialist stands for.

“Yes, I endorsed one candidate and then she joined the IDC, but I’m telling you now and I’m telling you publicly, that if she in fact remains a member of the IDC, she will not have my support in the future,” James said at the meeting.

Alcantara has been a lightning rod of late. Last week, Congressman Keith Ellison, otherwise a national progressive hero for backing Sanders early, endured the online wrath of Democrats after he took a smiling selfie with her. At first, he was dismissive of complaints on Twitter, but he later said in a statement he is “willing to do whatever might be helpful to bring together a Democratic majority in the New York State Senate.”

What Ellison, a deputy leader at the Democratic National Committee, can actually do to force the IDC to form a Democratic majority remains to be seen. Ellison will headline a fundraiser for the senate Democrats next month, but he’s so far been unwilling to directly criticize the IDC’s arrangement with Republicans. Most Democrats remain in this camp: resentful of a Republican majority but unwilling to cross the IDC’s powerful and plenty vindictive leader, Jeff Klein.

Rather than concede that a rogue conference of registered Democrats in an overwhelmingly Democratic state has little rationale for existing in 2017, Klein has hunkered down. He said in a private dinner that if he had “anything to do with it,” the Republicans were going to be in the majority for a “long, long time.” Furious about a probe into the state senate’s practice of paying out stipends for leadership positions lawmakers don’t hold — IDC members, along with Republicans, are a target — Klein will concede nothing.

On Monday, the IDC released a new video calling on the mainline Democrats to vote on an array of progressive legislation, including a codification of Roe v. Wade in the state constitution, campaign finance reform, and tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants. The video was an old IDC gambit: challenging the more conservative mainline Democrats, like the pro-life Ruben Diaz Sr., to vote for the bills and prove how backward they are when they don’t. How can the IDC be a roadblock to liberal reform in New York when it supports such nice, forward-thinking things?

But the argument’s logic is easy to puncture. As long as they hold the majority, Republicans will block all these bills or, if they can horse trade, pass weaker versions of them. The IDC never spends money to defeat Republicans and elect the sort of Democrats who would probably vote for the legislation they care about. To weaken the Republican Conference is to undo all the IDC’s leverage. Were the mainline Democrats ever large enough, they could form a majority alone and consign the IDC to a hell without plum committees and lavishly paid staff.

What comes next? Next year is setting up to be devastating for Republicans. Democrats are motivated to punish the party of Trump. Republicans running for all levels of office will be on the defensive. Democratic elected officials in New York, including the IDC’s patron, Governor Andrew Cuomo, are starting to see what an albatross a Republican-aligned Democratic faction can be. Will these outside forces compel unity in the state senate? Will Cuomo truly care? Will they allow Klein to deliver on his promise of keeping the Republicans in power for a long, long time? Trump has at least forced New Yorkers to keep watch on the swamp in their own backyard.