Beyond their shocking loss in the 2016 president election, Democrats in all 50 states are faced with the fact that their local parties are doing a terrible job holding on to state legislatures. Democrats have total control of just five state legislative bodies and seventeen governors' mansions, which means scant opportunities to develop and recruit rising young stars and get liberal laws passed across the country. New York Democrats should be resting easy, given that they control the governor's mansion and the state Assembly, and hold a numerical majority in the state Senate. Except for the pesky fact that the six-year-old breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, which now has eight members, is aligned with Senate Republicans, artificially increasing GOP power in the chamber. What is the Independent Democratic Conference though, and what do its members want?
The history of the Democrats in the state Senate has been fraught for two consecutive governors. In 2009, during the regrettable David Paterson era, Democrats in the Senate held a majority in the chamber. However, that collapsed when Senators Pedro Espada, Jr. (who was eventually convicted of embezzling from his own health nonprofit) and Hiram Monserrate (who was eventually convicted for beating his girlfriend and then again for using City Council member discretionary funds to pay for his State Senate campaign) staged a legislative coup by voting with 30 Republicans to remove Democrat Malcolm Smith (who was eventually convicted of attempting to bribe his way onto the Republican ballot line in the 2013 mayoral election) as Senate Majority leader and install Republican Dean Skelos (who was later convicted of bribery, fraud and extortion) as the new majority leader. The chaos can best be described by this GIF from The Naked Gun:
In what would become a familiar refrain in the case of the IDC, Senate Republicans told the mediathat coup meant "a new bipartisan coalition is being established that is bringing real reform to the Senate right now." Democratic control of the chamber had lasted for just six months.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the total circus that was the coup and leadership crisis, voters gave control of the Senate back to Republicans after the 2010 election. Following that changeover, four Democrats—Senators Jeffrey Klein, Diane Savino, David Valesky, and David Carlucci—broke off from the Democratic caucus to form what they called the Independent Democratic Conference. IDC members said they still supported Governor Andrew Cuomo's agenda and would continue to vote with Democrats, but they wanted to move away from state Senator John Sampson's (who eventually went to prison for obstruction of justice relating to an embezzlement investigation) leadership of the party. However, as a small independent conference that had broken away from the minority party, they had a limited amount of power.
Democrats rebounded to grab what at the time looked like a 33-30 advantage over Republicans after the 2012 election. Following the election though, Malcom Smith joined the four IDC senators, who then announced in December that they would form a power sharing agreement with the Republicans led by Dean Skelos (in addition, Democrat Simcha Felder announced he would caucus with the Republicans while still remaining registered as, and therefore officially, a Democrat). The power sharing agreement between Republicans and the IDC is that both conferences would have equal say over which bills came to the floor and had equal input on the state budget, which meant Democrats were somehow the minority party despite having won more seats in the Senate than Republicans.
Following the second coup, the IDC issued a statement that read "we are fully supportive of raising the minimum wage, campaign finance reform, stop and frisk reform, protecting a woman's reproductive rights, a property tax cap and on-time budgets." Governor Andrew Cuomo, who at that time wasn't quite the progressive warrior he fancies himself now, didn't do much to try to bring the two sides together, telling WNYC, "It's more of a coalition, because there are three groups instead of just two. They come to an arrangement among themselves, and whoever gets two out of three winds up winning."
Cuomo eventually got involved in a half-hearted attempt to win back the Senate for the Democrats in 2014 in order to fend off a challenge from the left by Zephyr Teachout, and the IDC temporarily gave up its power sharing agreement with the Republicans. But the effort to retake the Senate failed, and the IDC went back to working with Republicans.
After the 2016 election, it looked like Democrats, again, were ready to head to Albany with a slim 32-31 majority. However, Simcha Felder has continued caucusing with Republicans, and Jeff Klein announced at the beginning of 2017 that the IDC would continue its partnership with the Republican Party. The IDC also picked up two more members, bringing its total to seven and giving the GOP/IDC coalition a 39-24 advantage. Senator Klein told Gothamist that this was just a matter of the IDC sticking to its core idea of not sitting on the sidelines and protesting. "When the dust settled on this election, the Republicans had 32 members in their conference," Klein said. "And we looked and agreed amongst ourselves that we wanted to be in the game."
Klein suggests that the IDC coming back to or conferencing with the mainline Democrats would just be joining with a minority conference. "32 is the magic number. Without 32 it's mere posturing and protesting on the sidelines without the ability to get things done," Klein said. He also suggested that since there aren't 32 Democrats who are pro-choice or in favor of the DREAM Act or campaign finance reform, those bills would be D.O.A. even if introduced on the floor of the Senate, since he couldn't see a Republican breaking ranks to vote for such a bill. "Why would they? They oppose these things, they're Republicans right?" he asked.
Brooklyn state Senator Jesse Hamilton announced that he would join the conference right before the 2016 general election, and newly elected Harlem Senator Marisol Alcantara pledged to caucuswith the IDC after winning her primary. Hamilton and Alcantara both credited the IDC with securing the minimum wage increase and family leave as their reasons for joining the breakaway faction, though as Ross Barkan pointed out in the Village Voice, the Democratic caucus also supported and pushed for these policies. Klein disputes this idea. "Not a lot of different things are going to happen any differently than when the Democrats were in the majority," he said, citing the potential influence of newly-elected Senator John Brooks, a registered Republican, and virulently anti-abortion senator Ruben Diaz.
"You can't say that we're somehow promoting Trumpism by partnering with the Republicans if on the other hand all those wonderful things [Democrats could accomplish] don't get done. I'd rather be what I call myself, and we all call ourselves this in the IDC, 'a pragmatic progressive,'" Klein said. In his view, the negotiations and bi-partisan governing fashion of the IDC/GOP power sharing agreement gives Republicans "bi-partisan cred" and allows Democratic priorities to become law.
Recently, Queens Senator Jose Peralta fled the Democratic caucus for the IDC, leaving mainstream Democrats with just 23 seats in the Senate. Peralta justified the switch to a caucus that's been widely seen as empowering Republicans in a statement declaring, "Today's political climate demands that progressive legislators take bold action to deliver for their constituents."
However, sources told the NY Post that Peralta switched to the IDC caucus in order to get a pay raise (from a $27,500 stipend that would come from getting a leadership position). Peralta's Facebook page has filled up with angry comments from constituents and other members of the public since he announced his defection, and as such he'll be holding a town hall tonight in order to explain the switch.
What's confusing for anyone who doesn't mainline Albany politics directly into their veins is why the IDC works outside of the regular Democratic party caucus if it doesn’t have ideological differences with the party. IDC members enjoy perks as a result of working with Republicans, though this never seems to be mentioned by members. Senior staffers for IDC-aligned members are paid more than their peers in the minority, four senators (Hamilton, Alcantara, Tony Avella and Westchester state Senator David Carlucci) chair committees and two (David Valesky and Diane Savino) are vice-chairs on committees, which entitles them to higher pay, a privilege not offered to minority party members.
As for Jeff Klein himself, the Bronx senator has enjoyed a high profile as a result of his defection from the mainstream Democrats and his leadership of the IDC. He's been invited to sit in on budget negotiations with the governor, a process usually limited to the heads of the State Senate and Assembly. That process has traditionally been referred to as "The Three Men In A Room," but with the addition of Klein, it's now a far-more-democratic Four Men In A Room. Klein has been pegged as New York's new power broker and was getting talked up as a potential Senate co-president again when it looked like Democrats would take the State Senate this election. He seems to relish his leadership role.
Meanwhile, Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has been hit with the nebulous charge that she doesn't lead, from press and from fellow Democrats, including allies of Andrew Cuomo.
Stewart-Cousins disputed the idea she wasn't leading, telling Gothamist that she'd been making overtures for Klein to return to the regular caucus for the last few years.
"Was it Frederick Douglass who said 'power concedes nothing without a demand'?" Cousins asked, before saying the IDC "is a group of people who have been empowered since 2010 to ignore the larger base of the party that continues to elect them, in order for them to gain more advantages by affiliating with the Republicans."
"Republicans will do anything to remain in power, so they're doing whatever they need to do to keep this rogue group with them, so [the IDC] get more and more power. I don't have anything to trade to get people to switch," Cousins said.
Klein denied this, telling us that mainline Democrats have never attempted a negotiation with IDC members, and that "if you're serious about a coalition, the way to do it is not to ask everyone under the sun to force us back. They play everything out in the press."
As for Cuomo, while he dipped a toe in the waters of campaigning for Senate Democrats this election cycle, his efforts were criticized as too little and too late. (He didn’t endorse James Gaughran until the end of October in 2016—Gaughran lost to Republican incumbent Carl Marcellino—and had not endorsed Long Island Democrat Ryan Cronin days before Election Day. Cronin also lost.) Following the election, Cuomo wasn't moved by the appeals of Stewart-Cousins to take action to unify the entire Democratic caucus to get them to a one-vote majority. But she says she doesn't blame him for the continuing split in the party. "Certainly we had hoped that the governor would become involved a little bit more," Cousins said, adding "he also at this point realizes that first of all this has gone on for a long time. To say what the governor would or could do would imply that this is at his feet. This is really at this point about the IDC."
The legislative goals laid out by the IDC in 2011 eventually were accomplished, but there's no reason to believe that proper Democratic majority would not have accomplished the same. A $15 minimum wage was passed during the budget negotiation process in 2016, but it came with a delayed implementation for Westchester and Long Island and a maximum of a $12.50/hour wage upstate by 2020, a region-by-region approach that Klein endorsed as "the right approach" to implement the wage.
The state's most recent campaign finance reform efforts were criticized and seen as lukewarm, and stop-and-frisk ended in New York City as a result of a court decision rather than legislative action. New York's abortion law still limits the procedure to just 24 weeks into a pregnancy, and a bill to update the state's 1970 abortion law to get in line with Roe v. Wade can't even make it to the floor of the Senate without a unified Democratic caucus.
Having the state Senate in Republican hands also allowed Cuomo to unilaterally take action to play the hero on his own and ensure the Affordable Care Act's free birth control mandate would remain as a policy in New York State even without the ACA, without relying on a bill the Assembly passed but the Senate most likely would have killed.
As a separate conference from both the Democrats and Republicans, IDC members don't get involved in Democratic or Republican leadership votes or other meetings. Felder is a different case, as by caucusing with Republicans he attends their leadership meetings. However, Felder told reporters he didn't cast a vote at the leadership meeting that saw John Flanagan retain his position as head of the GOP conference, and signaled that he wasn't really attached to either party.
"I'd be delighted to caucus with the Democrats, I'd be delighted to stay with the Republicans," Felder told the Daily News at the time, claiming that he was caucusing with the GOP because it allowed him to get the best deals for his district, which includes Borough Park and parts of Flatbush and Midwood. Felder's alignment with Republicans would appear to keep the Democrats from regaining their majority even if all of the IDC members came back, but Stewart-Cousins claimed that it's the other way around.
"We had a conversation, and he said he was willing to consider being our 32nd for our majority," Stewart-Cousins said. "But he said that he really couldn't get anybody from the IDC to be with the Democrats if he came to sit with us." (Felder’s spokesman said that Felder “would consider coming back to the Democratic conference if the IDC came back to conference with the Democrats.")
Klein, for his part, denies that Felder talked to him about this. "The only thing I talk to Simcha Felder about is policy, not politics."
And while their membership stands at eight at the moment, the IDC is rumored to be planning another expansion already. The Post reports that rumors are flying that James Sanders, Todd Kaminsky, John Brooks and Martin Dilan are going to join the group. "I don't know his position on anything, I don't know if he's pro-choice," Klein said about Brooks while talking to Gothamist.
"They’re leaving because they want more money and resources for the district that the Democratic Conference can’t provide. The Republicans and the IDC have a pile of money. I can’t blame them," Ruben Diaz told the Post.