News & Politics

Senator Chuck Schumer Is A Democratic Leader — Just Not In New York

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Chuck Schumer doesn’t like to take risks. Now minority leader of the U.S. Senate, he’s built a career out of skirting controversy. When it was in vogue, he was a tough-on-crime Democrat and tireless defender of Wall Street, only edging left when political currents made such blatant triangulating less tenable.

A good party soldier, he has nevertheless avoided the messy and necessary fights in his backyard. The latest galling example is his failure to apply any pressure to the Independent Democratic Conference, an eight-member breakaway group that has kept Republicans in the state senate majority. As national Democrats, including Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, and Democratic members of New York’s House delegation call on the IDC to form a Democratic majority after senate Democrats once more secured a numerical edge over the GOP, Schumer has remained conspicuously silent. He declined repeated requests from the Voice to comment on the IDC’s Republican alliance.

On one hand, this might seem surprising. Schumer is a Democratic stalwart. He once led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, laying the groundwork for his party’s take-over of the upper chamber in 2006. He’s well-liked by most of his colleagues. He has warm relationships with some veteran Republicans, but bipartisanship was once very common in the old Washington. Working with a Republican never meant you were selling out your own party.

Avoiding the muck of state politics has made Schumer both popular and somewhat irrelevant back home. Sure, everyone knows his name, he’s sponsored a raft of legislation, and helped wrangle a sizable amount of federal money for New York State over the years. Yet anyone paying attention knows all politics and policy in the Empire State is guided by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has consolidated and wielded power like few other executives before him. From schools to transportation to infrastructure, from the composition of the state legislature to how many crumbs New York City needs to beg for in Albany — all of it, really, is determined by the whims of Cuomo. Schumer, despite his appearance in various power rankings, is a bit player.

The IDC, which has partnered with conservative senate Republicans for more than four years, exists at the pleasure of Cuomo, who has rarely campaigned for or spent significant cash on mainline Democrats. Albany insiders say Cuomo, along with the IDC’s leader, Jeff Klein, was central to the breakaway group’s founding in 2011 and enjoyed having a bloc in the senate to frustrate overly liberal initiatives. As long as the legislature remains divided, it can’t unite against the executive office.

Schumer’s hesitancy to weigh in may be a rare instance of a cautious politician misreading the moment. Progressive activists, who have protested outside his Park Slope home to demand he more forcefully stand up to Donald Trump, are now rallying against the IDC. Most members of the conference have endured raucous protests, and anti-IDC chapters exist in almost every borough. The Working Families Party decided to throw its weight behind an opposition movement. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is stuck between cozying up to Klein to get his agenda through Albany and trying to be a progressive leader, is explicit about wanting the IDC to form a Democratic majority.

The IDC has argued that it tamed Albany dysfunction and pushed forward enough progressive priorities, like de Blasio’s universal pre-K and a minimum wage hike. It says it can’t return to the Democratic fold until one rogue conservative Democrat, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, does so first, and attacked members of the mainline Democrats who aren’t pro-choice. But Felder, who only wants to sit in a majority, said in a recent letter that he wanted the IDC to partner with Democrats. He’s waiting on them to make the first move.

Given all this, what can Schumer do? What should he do? As a Democrat of serious national standing, he should demand the IDC form a Democratic majority. He should pressure Cuomo to do the same. The IDC can ignore members of Congress without much name recognition or clout on the national scene. Spitting in Schumer’s face is a harder thing to do.

For anyone on the left, justifying the existence of the IDC makes little sense. Senate Democrats, many of whom were elected after the legislative chaos of 2009 and 2010, are capable enough of governing the upper chamber. They stand ready to send single-payer healthcare legislation and much-needed campaign finance reform to Cuomo’s desk. They don’t need the IDC to stifle Republican bills because that’s what the state assembly, in Democratic hands eternally, is for.

Schumer has never been comfortable with the left wing of his party, but he knows well enough when it makes sense to respond to the grassroots. The longer he waits, the more out of touch he’ll be. Press conferences on United Airlines and yogurt just won’t cut it anymore.

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