Of all the extraordinary powers vested in the governor’s office, the ability to unilaterally call special elections is one of the more underrated. With two Democratic seats in the state senate possibly becoming vacant in the next couple of months, Governor Andrew Cuomo will have a momentous decision to make, one that could affect the balance of power in Albany for the upcoming year.
Both senate vacancies would result from senators being elected to other jobs elsewhere. Senator Rubén Díaz Sr. is poised to take a City Council seat in November after winning a Democratic primary a couple of weeks ago. And Senator George Latimer is the Democratic candidate for Westchester County executive, where he is given decent odds of dethroning the Republican incumbent, Rob Astorino.
At stake, as always, is the ever complex senate majority, held together by a coalition of Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference, registered Democrats who have chosen to empower the GOP for almost five years. Republicans currently hold a one-seat majority, with the assistance of the IDC and one conservative Democrat, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who caucuses with the GOP. This alliance has allowed Republicans to water down progressive legislation while outright blocking others, like tuition assistance for undocumented immigrants and a bill that would create a statewide single-payer healthcare system. While claiming to have brought order to the senate in the name of vaguely defined pragmatic progressivism, the IDC has been rewarded with committee chairs, bigger staff budgets, and the ability to negotiate the $150 billion–plus state budget with Cuomo.
If mainline Democrats are down two members for a large part of the legislative session next year, it will be impossible to build a majority with Felder, who has said he is open to rejoining the Democrats if the IDC breaks its power-sharing agreement with the Republicans. Another year of Republican control will be guaranteed.
Much will ride on when the current senators give up their seats. Unlike vacant city offices, which are filled by law through nonpartisan elections open to all candidates, state special elections disallow primaries, letting local party organizations nominate the candidates they prefer. In areas dominated by one party — Republicans are just about extinct in the Bronx — a nomination is tantamount to victory.
Díaz, a Pentecostal reverend known for his socially conservative views, has said he would like to serve until the end of his senate term in January, saying he doesn’t want to leave his constituents without a state senator, and he’d prefer not to live a few weeks without a paycheck. Latimer is closer to senate Democratic leadership and could potentially leave sooner if it would mean an earlier special election to fill his seat. Either way, all special elections must occur on the same day, so Latimer’s decision would be moot if Díaz doesn’t leave in November.
By state law, a special election must be held between seventy and eighty days after the governor calls for one. Cuomo, however, has full discretion to call special elections, or not to call them at all. He can leave seats vacant for as long as he wants.
In past administrations, if both senators gave up their seats in January, an election would occur sometime in March, just in time for budget negotiations to be heating up. But Cuomo’s approach to special elections has been wildly inconsistent. Early in his tenure, he readily called them when seats became vacant. In 2014, he outright refused, leaving twelve districts across the state without representation for most of the year.
It was an unprecedented move, which Cuomo explained away as a cost-saving measure — and one that also deprived local political machines of being able to handpick replacement candidates. Since most of the vacancies were in a state assembly dominated by Democrats, the stakes were far lower than they are now.
Bronx assembly member Luis Sepúlveda, the candidate preferred by the party machine to replace Díaz, is a curious character. He broke with party leaders in 2013 to back Bill de Blasio for mayor over the machine’s preferred candidate, Bill Thompson. He has fashioned himself as a progressive, supporting Bernie Sanders for president and speaking at the democratic socialist’s Bronx rally last year.
At the same time, Sepúlveda has also flirted with becoming the IDC’s ninth member. Friendly with Klein, he was backed by the IDC’s campaign arm during a 2014 assembly re-election bid. Since Díaz made it clear early this year that he would run for the City Council, the IDC has quietly viewed Sepúlveda as someone worth grooming.
Though the IDC’s actions have ended up empowering Republicans, certain left-leaning Democrats have been drawn to the breakaway conference because of its proximity to power. Sitting in the majority, even one that is ideologically compromised, opens up the possibility of seeing more of your bills become law.
But thanks to backlash the IDC has endured from progressive activists and the sudden cold shoulder many Democratic elected officials have shown the breakaway group, Sepúlveda is far less likely to become a member of the IDC now, sources close to the assembly member tell the Voice.
Since joining the IDC last year, Queens state senator Jose Peralta has been the target of nonstop protests in his district. A de Blasio staffer and former district leader, Jessica Ramos, is considering mounting a primary challenge against Peralta next year — backed by a rare coalition of the more centrist (and IDC-hating) Queens County Democratic Party and the liberal Working Families Party.
As an enabler of the Republican majority in the senate — when liberal bills fail to become law under his watch, he can conveniently blame the GOP — Cuomo has done little to help senate Democrats as governor. He has rarely funneled funds from his massive campaign war chest to Democratic candidates and has refused to allow the New York State Democratic Party, which he entirely controls, to aid its candidates.
Not calling special elections — allowing senate Democrats to be short one or two members for an extended period of time — would be expected, given Cuomo’s history.
Yet the age of Trump has riled up progressives, bringing new scrutiny to Cuomo’s backroom machinations and fueling hopes of a primary challenge from his left in next year’s gubernatorial elections. A few years ago, only political insiders cared if Cuomo refused to help his own. Now, activists across the city and state are paying closer attention, in a way they never did before.
Progressives would be wise to watch closely over these next few months. If Cuomo hesitates to call special elections as soon as he is able, he is not serious about helping Democrats capture the senate majority. He is who he always is: a triangulating executive content to pass liberal half-measures, even if a truly shrewd Democratic executive with presidential aspirations would recognize how much of a liability a Republican senate can be.
And if Cuomo does call special elections, pay attention to how he spends his money. Will he assist Democrats in primaries against the IDC? Will he assist Democrats battling Republicans for the majority? For most Democratic governors in America, these are not even questions you have to ask.
For Cuomo, they’re the only questions.