Like Wonderland, Albany is a place where nothing is as it seems. Deals are agreed upon, only to evaporate in the night. Budgets are not merely budgets. Politicians register with one party and empower the other.
This week, there was momentous news out of Albany. Shortly after the Republican-controlled state senate and Democratic-controlled assembly passed a $168 billion budget devoid of key progressive priorities, it was revealed that Governor Andrew Cuomo was driving a deal to dissolve the Independent Democratic Conference — a group of eight breakaway Democrats who form a power-sharing alliance with Republicans in the senate — and create a unified Democratic majority.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the current minority leader, would become the sole Democratic majority leader. Jeff Klein, the IDC leader and co-leader of the senate, would become her deputy.
No more divided senate. No more strange coalitions that stymie numerous Democratic-friendly bills. Cynthia Nixon, perhaps the most formidable opponent Cuomo has ever faced, was hammering the governor on his unwillingness to pressure the IDC to return to the fold, apparently motivating him to act fast.
Though victory has been proclaimed, history shows that empowering a Democratic majority in the state legislature is never a simple matter. In fact, it’s unnecessarily labyrinthine.
To recap: Since the end of 2012, the state senate in deep blue New York has been controlled by Republicans with the help of the IDC, and the implicit blessing of Cuomo. Sitting in the majority is a very powerful thing: You can control, in an absolute sense, the flow of legislation while earning extra cash from chairing committees. Your staff budgets can be immense. All the special interest money comes to you.
The reunification of the state senate can have profound and overwhelmingly positive consequences for anyone living in New York City. Democrats in the senate are largely from the city and care more about our concerns, like fixing the subways and buses, strengthening tenant protections, and increasing funding for education in the five boroughs. The Republican conference, obviously conservative, is overwhelmingly based elsewhere.
Real estate interests driving gentrification and hoping to eviscerate the rent-regulation and rent-stabilization programs (up for renewal on a regular basis in Albany) are major funders of the senate Republicans. So too are charter schools, hedge funders, and some of the national right-wing donors who champion austerity and privatization agendas.
The Republicans have consistently opposed any and all reforms to New York’s notorious lax campaign finance laws and arcane voting laws, the latter of which has given the state one of the more dismal voter turnout rates in America. Senate Republicans have also blocked codifying Roe v. Wade in the state constitution to gird against Supreme Court overreach, and passing statewide civil rights protections for LGBTQ New Yorkers. Even relatively simple, noncontroversial reforms like early voting were ultimately dropped because senate Republicans had no interest in supporting them. Others, like the Dream Act and the New York Health Act, weren’t even entertained.
So yes, any Democrat, progressive, good government advocate, or just general believer in a fairer, more just system should welcome this deal.
If only it were that simple.
Assuming the Democrats win both special elections on April 24, they will need the cooperation of Simcha Felder, a conservative Democrat, to form a numerical majority. Even then, it will be slim and unstable, unlikely to deliver on any progressive priorities before the end of the legislative session in June.
This was why it was so egregious that Cuomo delayed calling special elections for two vacant state senate seats until later this month, ensuring Stewart-Cousins could not be in the room to negotiate a massive state budget that also, because of the quirks of Albany, carries with it the best opportunity to enact serious policy changes.
It’s important to use history as a guide here. In 2014, there was a similar handshake agreement to reunify the Democrats and IDC. The Working Families Party, a hybrid of labor unions and left-leaning activists, agreed to stop supporting primary challenges against the IDC, then a conference of a mere four. But after Republicans won a series of swing elections in what turned out to be a GOP wave year nationally, reunification never occurred. Republicans remained in the majority with Cuomo’s blessing.
It’s unclear what enforcement mechanism exists to keep this latest deal from falling apart, to keep Cuomo to his word, and to keep the IDC from reneging on the agreement when it decides not having its own conference isn’t fun anymore. What happens when Klein starts to long for his lavish staff budget and old perks? What happens when the Republicans tempt him for one more round?
This is why the IDC primary challenges must continue. Full disclosure: I am running for state senate against a Republican. The IDC has only remained influential because the Republican conference is large and unified. A sustainable reunification will only happen when the Republican and IDC conferences are weakened, allowing the mainline Democrats, who have have always been loyal, leverage to govern.
As always, we must follow the money. Cuomo and the IDC each control vast war chests of campaign cash. Neither has ever spent money to help senate Democrats defeat senate Republicans. Will that change in 2018?
Too many questions remain. Always remember: Nothing is ever as it seems in Albany.