Keith Ellison Wades Into New York’s Murky Political Waters

With his selfie with an IDC member, the progressive leader steps in an Albany bear trap


The picture landed on Twitter innocently enough, one Bernie Sanders acolyte to another. “.@NY31Alcantara, great hearing about your awesome Harlem/Washington Heights district Senator Marisol,” tweeted Congressman Keith Ellison. The tweet accompanied a grinning selfie with Marisol Alcantara, a Manhattan state senator and fellow self-identified progressive.

But the backlash on Monday came quick: more than 150 replies, most of them furious. “Congressman, you know that she caucuses with the Republicans, keeping them in power in the NY Senate despite a numerical minority?” asked Joshua Goodman, a former state senate Democratic staffer.

Ellison is a leader in the national progressive movement, a deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, and one of Sanders’s most prominent and vocal supporters. Alcantara is a former labor organizer and Sanders delegate. Together, they check every progressive box.

Yet the congressman didn’t quite know what he had gotten himself into. Alcantara is one of eight Democrats who belong to the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of breakaway Democrats who have formed a power-sharing alliance with senate Republicans since 2013. For two years, the IDC even forced regular Democrats to remain in the minority when they had more than enough members, by party registration, to form a numerical majority with the IDC. While many of the IDC members self-identify as progressives and support liberal legislation, their existence ensures New York State will only move so far left.

For the Republican Conference, a conservative bloc hailing mostly from the suburbs and upstate, the IDC is a lifeline: As long as it remains on good terms with the IDC’s leader, State Senator Jeff Klein, the GOP will not plunge into the minority in an increasingly blue state.

These are not easy times for the IDC. Their dubious practice of handing out stipends for ill-defined leadership posts and misidentifying them to the state comptroller’s office is under serious scrutiny. Donald Trump’s election has alarmed a swell of local activists and regular Democrats skeptical of a conference that prides itself on collaborating with — and ultimately empowering — Republicans. One IDC member, Jose Peralta of Queens, held a town hall in February and was berated for several hours.

So why was Ellison smiling with Alcantara? A source close to Ellison said the Minnesota congressman admittedly wasn’t entirely familiar with the IDC’s history. He met Alcantara during a series of fundraising events in New York City for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which he co-chairs.

Ellison was aware she belonged to the IDC, however. The photograph, the source said, represented a form of outreach. “If you can engage with people, you can help bring them back into the fold,” the Ellison source said. “He’s trying to add to the progressive movement, not subtract.”

Gus Christensen, an anti-IDC activist who attended the fundraiser with Ellison, worried that a “well-intentioned” Ellison “is playing into the IDC’s hands by giving visible and unqualified support to her.”

In April, the Daily News reported national Democrats were getting involved in the effort to help state senate Democrats reclaim the majority next year. Ellison himself will hold a fundraiser for the senate Democrats on June 9, and they still view him as a key ally. Undoubtedly, Ellison wants to see one of the largest states in America in complete Democratic control.

The problem is that the IDC hasn’t responded to outreach. Formed in 2011, the conference has existed in part to ensure its leader, Klein, can negotiate a massive state budget with the governor, Republican majority leader, and Democratic Assembly Speaker. As part of the majority, IDC members can chair committees and boast larger staff budgets than their old colleagues in the minority. Were the IDC to dissolve and rejoin the Democratic Conference, Klein, as a white man from the Bronx, could never become the sole majority leader. (One IDC member, Diane Savino, suggested the senate Democrats dump their black female leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Westchester, to make Klein their leader and reunite the conferences.)

For senate Democrats and progressives committed to snuffing the IDC out, Alcantara represents a particularly egregious betrayal. Bankrolled by the IDC, she won her primary last year while championing her commitment to leftist causes. Though the IDC was white and predominately male for most of its history and aligns itself with a Republican conference that is entirely white, adding a Latina has allowed the breakaway Democrats to falsely contend that all criticism of the IDC amounts to racism. The maneuver, cynically employed by Alcantara, makes little sense because senate Democrats represent most of the heavily black and Hispanic neighborhoods in New York City.

It’s becoming clear that few rank-and-file Democrats buy what Alcantara is selling, though. If the IDC is to forge on, business as usual, in the years to come it will need voters and Democratic heavyweights to return to their state of pre-Trump apathy. It will need to be ignored. It will need Governor Andrew Cuomo to remain a patron. And maybe it’ll need more Keith Ellison selfies.