Everything politics has taught me, and continues to teach me, boils down to power: who wields it and who doesn’t.
I believed this before I ran for office and I believe it more now, especially as I compete for the right to serve in Albany, where politicians’ power struggles affect the lives of millions of people. This is why I reacted with skepticism, as did many other progressives, when Governor Cuomo and his state Democratic Party announced a deal recently to reunite the Independent Democratic Conference and the mainline senate Democrats, who together would form a majority in the state senate.
Both the IDC, which for the last six years has maintained a power-sharing alliance with senate Republicans, and the senate Democrats have tentatively accepted the terms of the deal. Among political insiders, it is considered correct to solemnly affirm this deal because that is the adult thing to do. Do not bicker, do not fight. Everyone must make a sacrifice and compromise — that’s how governing works.
Since I’m no longer a mere spectator of the process, but sunk ever deeper into it, I feel obligated to speak out. The terms of the deal are ultimately self-defeating for senate Democrats, who are still locked in the minority, because they exist with the assumption that the IDC should be allowed to exist, and exist at full strength.
For once, next year’s electoral environment, along with the grassroots energy being generated, will favor Democrats. They will gain everything by picking up their swords, not laying them down.
The terms of this deal were foisted on the Senate from above. Geoff Berman, Cuomo’s handpicked executive director of a state party that he controls top to bottom, announced an ultimatum of sorts last month for the two feuding sides. If the IDC won’t form a majority with the senate Dems, the state party promised to back challengers to the IDC’s members next year. After years of relative silence, it appeared Cuomo’s state party at last had woken up to the egregiousness of the Republican-IDC alliance — an alliance that has ensured we can’t have a statewide single-payer healthcare system, campaign finance reform, the Dream Act, or changes to our antiquated voting laws.
The IDC and Democrats would have to agree to approve who became the deputy leaders of each group, a direct dig at the senate Democratic deputy leader, Michael Gianaris of Queens, who is a mortal enemy of the IDC’s leader and mastermind, Jeff Klein of the Bronx. (The IDC would not allow Gianaris to keep his role.) Since Gianaris accepted this condition — perhaps to Klein’s surprise — I don’t have too much concern about it, though it’s strange to me the IDC can’t just take up the same power-sharing arrangement they currently have with the right-wing Republican Conference: two legislative leaders in control, none deciding the arrangements of the other conference. Why can’t Cuomo command them to do just that?
It only got more confusing and dubious from there. Since there will be two vacant senate seats, both held by Democrats, at the beginning of 2018 — a possibility I warned about in September — special elections will have to be called to fill them. Unlike in city elections, where vacancies automatically trigger nonpartisan special elections, calling a special election for state legislative seats is the sole responsibility of the governor, and one of his most important and overlooked powers.
Special elections must occur seventy to eighty days after they are called, which means if Cuomo calls for elections right after the January 1 vacancies, the Democratic seats would be filled sometime in March. But Berman’s terms — really Cuomo’s, and they should be understood as such — call for special elections in April, after the $150 billion or so state budget is negotiated. It goes without saying that the most significant part of the Albany legislative process is the hammering out of a massive state budget. Since Republicans currently hold a slim one-seat majority, the IDC would control yet another budget negotiating process.
Progressives are right to decry these terms, especially when these senate seats, likely to be won by Democrats, could be filled sooner. And they are right to be angry about the state party’s other condition: that senate Democrats abandon their primary challenges of IDC members.
The bad news for the many progressive activists who are committed to ousting some or all of the eight-member IDC is that both Congressman Joe Crowley, the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party and one of the only anti-IDC county leaders, and Hector Figueroa, the president of the powerful union 32BJ SEIU, endorsed the terms of the deal. If they do not invest in these challenges, particularly against the three newest turncoat Democrats in New York City — Marisol Alcantara of Manhattan, Jesse Hamilton of Brooklyn, and Jose Peralta of Queens — the job of beating them in primaries becomes more difficult, though far from impossible.
Losing the nominal backing of the senate Democrats isn’t exactly helpful either, even if they were likely saving most of their limited resources for competitive general elections against Republicans.
The bigger issue, however, is the idea of any withdrawal of institutional support for the primary challengers (in essence, pressuring them to drop out altogether) to satisfy the terms of a nebulous deal. If somehow all the Democrats running against IDC members abandoned their campaigns — and they won’t — there would be nothing stopping the IDC, still eight members strong, from reneging on this “deal” and remaining in power with Republicans.
In fact, this already happened — in 2014, when another IDC-Democratic reconciliation came to nothing after labor unions and Democrats stopped helping two IDC primary challengers, Oliver Koppell and John Liu, who eventually lost their bids. Once the 2014 cycle ended, the IDC renewed its GOP alliance.
For senate Democrats, this kind of deal amounts to negotiating from a place of weakness, not strength, and both Klein and Cuomo know this. Weakening or ending the primary challenges would mean allowing the IDC to remain intact, guaranteeing its existence in perpetuity and ensuring it holds leverage over the senate as long as it wants.
To reduce the IDC’s power — its negotiating position — Democrats must defeat IDC members. Just as importantly, it must become politically untenable for any Democrats to join the IDC in the future, or for another breakaway conference to take its place if it ever dissolves.
How does this happen? Through the threat of primary challenges. Power is wielded through force, through campaigns.
There is no other alternative to building a strong, and progressive, Democratic majority in the senate. Every other option will end in failure.
Luckily, Albany power brokers can do nothing to actually keep these primary challenges from happening. The Democrats running against Peralta, Hamilton, and Alcantara are buttressed by a large number of grassroots activists and organizations rightfully fed up with Democrats who empower Republicans. Since many of these people are also supportive of me, perhaps my view of them is a bit rosy, but I can tell you there are thousands of them and they are willing to lend a good deal of their time (and money) to the cause.
All signs point to a Democratic wave in 2018 — a highly unpopular president, an energized Democratic base, and the history of midterms for the party in power. Given these factors, cutting any kind of deal to allow the IDC to exist as its own conference makes no sense. The Republicans they rely on to stay in power are endangered.
This election cycle could cripple Republican power in New York for good, especially if Democrats retain a majority in 2020 and can finally control the redistricting process for 2022. But Cuomo and his state Democratic Party want senate Democrats to surrender their potential power for short-term crumbs.
Luckily, the people in these IDC districts know better. They know leaving the IDC alone is a mistake. In their passion is logic — that to fight is the only way to win.
Longtime Village Voice political reporter Ross Barkan announced his candidacy for state senate in south Brooklyn’s 22nd district on October 3. Publication of his articles by the Voice does not imply our endorsement of Barkan’s campaign.