“It seemed like the IDC might last forever,” Gus Christensen says, recalling his years in the progressive political wilderness. “No one seemed to care.”
Christensen, a 45-year-old investment banker-turned-political activist, was always irked by the rogue band of Democrats in the New York State Senate who proudly partnered with Republicans to maintain their slim but enduring majority. He dreamed of an effort to depose them, but knew he had no chance if few people paid attention to arcane local infighting. Until the arrival of the Donald Trump era, he could only stew.
Trump has altered New York’s political landscape in profound and unexpected ways. Alarmed by his rise to power and hunting for opportunities, large and small, to resist right-wing dominance in Washington, progressives have turned at last to their own backyard. The Independent Democratic Conference, that eight-member clique of breakaway Democrats who share power with the GOP, became the target of their long-delayed wrath, as activists and ordinary neighborhood residents stormed town halls and staged raucous protests, demanding an end to their alliance with Republicans.
When Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison, deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee and a popular liberal voice on the national scene, dared to mug for the cameras with a member of the IDC, he was immediately denounced and forced to change course, distancing himself from the breakaway Democrats and threatening to back primary challengers against them. Activists have even forced the typically indifferent New York State Democratic Party to back a resolution opposing the IDC’s Republican alliance.
Harnessing this energy will be the job of Christensen, who is the chief strategist of No IDC NY, a group formed by anti-IDC activists with the explicit goal of funding viable primary challengers against every member of the group as well as State Senator Simcha Felder, a conservative Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with Republicans. NO IDC NY has formed a campaign committee to raise cash for challengers who emerge, and Christensen, who once ran for office himself, hopes to rake in six figures for the committee — or even more. In the meantime, the organization is focused on building out an extensive email and volunteer list.
“What we want is a unified slate of nine challengers,” Christensen says, noting that he’s been in contact with multiple potential candidates in IDC districts already. “I guarantee [we will field candidates] — you can print it, stamp it, carve it in stone. It’s happening.”
Anger among progressives has been boiling for a variety of reasons. In 2012, there were enough Democrats to form a working majority in the State Senate, which has rarely occurred in the last half-century. Instead, the IDC — then numbering just five members — chose to form a governing alliance with conservative Senate Republicans, granting Bronx state senator Jeffrey Klein the co-majority leader title he so craved. In exchange, IDC members scored committee chairmanships — and the extra cash that came with them — and bigger staff budgets.
With Senate Republicans holding power, single-payer healthcare, tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants, and a $15 minimum wage for the entire state have all been blocked. The few progressive victories that have been achieved under the IDC’s watch — the city minimum wage hike, statewide paid family leave, and free tuition at two- and four-year colleges — have been more centrist-friendly bills that have benefitted from Cuomo’s arm-twisting and the lobbying of powerful labor unions.
(An IDC spokesperson did not return a request for comment for this story.)
NO IDC NY has a thirteen-member steering committee, including Christensen, and they hold a weekly conference call to discuss strategy. Jill Greenberg, a member of the Working Families Party, and Susan Kang, a John Jay College political science professor who has organized protests against Jose Peralta, an IDC member in Queens, are also a part of the steering committee.
Accomplishing their goal of wiping out the IDC entirely will be close to impossible. Several members, including Klein and State Senator Diane Savino of Staten Island, are entrenched in their districts, well-known and well-funded. The IDC’s fundraising arms have $4.8 million to spend as of last month, compared to the $3.1 million mainline Democrats have to fund the campaigns a much larger conference heading into next year’s elections. Senate Republicans have $12.2 million in the bank.
The newest IDC members will be the most vulnerable to primary challengers, and there are decent odds that the breakaway conference will be smaller than eight come 2019. Robert Jackson, a former city councilman who has run for the state senate twice before, already kicked off his primary bid against Marisol Alcantara, a Manhattan Democrat who joined the IDC last year. Alcantara, Peralta, and Jesse Hamilton of Brooklyn all represent liberal districts where rank-and-file Democrats and progressive activists resent the IDC’s partnership with Republicans.
Tony Avella, who represents a more moderate district in eastern Queens, may have to fend off former comptroller John Liu, who is rumored to be mulling a bid next year.
“Primaries against incumbents are hard, and primaries against incumbents with the spending power of a party committee behind them are harder,” says a Democrat familiar with Senate campaign operations. “But IDC members like Peralta, Alcantara, and Hamilton are stuck between a post-2016 flood of angry Democratic activists on one side and a set of local power brokers who have gained new reason to care on the other.”
For NO IDC NY, working together with existing power players will be another near-term challenge. Christensen has been talking to the state senate Democrats and the Working Families Party and hopes they can all collaborate against a common enemy. The more centrist Queens Democratic Party, which has been at odds with the WFP, is also aggressively opposed to the two IDC members in their backyard — and Congressman Joe Crowley, their leader, sees the breakaway group as a potential roadblock to a future campaign for Speaker of the House.
“The force of a tremendous grassroots energy is being felt throughout our communities since November’s election, and it is a welcome development,” says Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for the senate Democrats.
But Christensen’s group remains more militant than the mainline Democrats, who are still open to peace with the IDC. If Governor Andrew Cuomo, an enabler of the rogue group, can extract a promise from the IDC to at least form a power-sharing alliance with regular Democrats after the elections next year, it’s possible senate Democrats will not invest any resources in waging primary battles against IDC members.
NO IDC NY, however, is unequivocal: It wants the IDC gone.
“We think they’re unsuitable and need to be driven from public life,” Christensen says.