IDC Reunifies With Mainline Democrats, Ending Years Of Division In The Senate
By Bill Mahoney and Laura Nahmias Politico April 4, 2018
ALBANY — The two Democratic factions in the state Senate will reunite as a single conference, ending years of bitter division that helped solidify Republican control of the chamber.
Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who has led the Senate's mainline Democrats since 2012, will retain her role and lead the new conference, which will consist of 29 of the chamber's 30 Democrats. Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein will forfeit his leadership role and dissolve his conference, becoming Stewart-Cousins' deputy.
"Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take two steps forward," Klein said. "When it all is said and done, my colleagues all believe that unity cannot wait until a special election. The place is here, the time is now. I come to this juncture knowing that we must all make sacrifices."
Special elections for two vacant Senate seats are scheduled for April 24.
The announcement marked the culmination of talks that began in November, when both conferences tentatively agreed to a deal that was designed to produce reunification after the special elections, which could give Democrats a numerical majority in the chamber. The original plan would have had Stewart-Cousins and Klein as co-leaders.
In the months since, a number of insurgents have announced primary challenges against IDC members. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who brought the parties together to arrange the unity deal, now has a primary opponent in Cynthia Nixon, who has repeatedly attacked him for his countenance of the breakaway conference.
"We have a common enemy, and the common enemy is defeating [Donald] Trump and [Paul] Ryan and [Mitch] McConnell and defeating their agenda and taking over the New York state Senate so we can protect this state the way it needs to be protected," said Cuomo, who helped create the IDC in 2011.
As for what these protections should look like, all the parties involved said it should entail a liberal agenda.
"Together, certainly with the governor, we will be able to do all the things that we know to be important to really make sure New York stays the progressive beacon it is," said Stewart-Cousins.
Cuomo listed the items that the new conference might achieve: "Child Victims Act, more gun safety, bail reform, the DREAM Act, banning outside income, campaign finance reform, early voting. These are all core essential progressive principles that were not passed in the budget and we will not pass until we have a Democratic Senate."
Despite the reunification, the new Democratic conference still has only 29 of the 32 seats necessary to have a majority in the chamber.
The two special elections could bring them a little closer. Democratic Assemblyman Luis Sepúlveda is expected to easily win a race in the Bronx, bringing his party's total to 30. And if Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer wins a hard-fought and competitive race in Westchester, the party would be one member short.
That leaves state Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, a registered Democrat who ran on both major party lines in 2016 and has conferenced with the GOP since he came to Albany. Felder, recently dubbed by Cuomo as "the great question mark," has always been coy about his intentions, and that hasn't changed.
"If and when it happens, I'd have to think about it," Felder told State of Politics on Wednesday about his plans should Sepúlveda and Mayer win. "I don't want to think about it right now."
Cuomo said Wednesday that Democrats will need to push for more than 32 seats in November, since Felder might be an unreliable partner regardless of his decision.
"We know from his past votes that Sen. Felder does not agree with a lot of the issues that this conference wants to pass," Cuomo said. "So really, we need to win additional seats in November."
Republicans, unsurprisingly, slammed the arrangement.
"The vast majority of New Yorkers want Democrats and Republicans to work together to get results, something we have done with great success since 2011," spokesman Scott Reif said in a statement. "It now appears that the Governor and others are willing to throw it all away in a desperate attempt to avoid Democratic Party primaries."
He hinted at the chaos that unfolded when Senate Democrats last entered into the majority in 2009, as the chamber's proceedings came to a halt due to internal divisions, a coup and a series of legal battles. "With important work still to do and only a handful of session days remaining, we expect to govern the Senate responsibly as the Majority for the rest of the year," Reif said in his statement. "The other option, which nobody wants, is state government descends into chaos and dysfunction."
Much of the bad blood between the two conferences is due to tensions between Klein and state Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, who replaced Klein as chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee after the party lost the majority in 2010. Last year, Cuomo's office said the neatest way to end the division would be to have Gianaris step down.
Klein will be given Gianaris' title, but Gianaris will continue to helm the Democrats' election efforts and will still serve as floor leader.
"The DSCC will continue as it is," Stewart-Cousins said.
Still, the arrangement raises a host of technical complications.
For one, the chamber's rules explicitly say that the IDC exists and plays a role in governing the chamber. Language placed into these rules in 2013 says they can only be changed with the approval of a supermajority of 38 members. If the necessary steps occur to put Democrats in the majority, Republicans would almost certainly attempt to block a leadership change in court, and while it's doubtful the supermajority provision would be upheld, it could certainly gum up the works for a few weeks.
These rules also mean that the new minority coalition has no chance of eliminating the IDC's role in the current majority coalition without the support of at least some Republicans, since the IDC-Democratic alliance currently has only 29 votes.
If the new arrangement is formalized, the question of resources will almost certainly come up. The rules and decades-old tradition guarantee that members of the minority conferences will receive a lot less money to hire staff than their majority counterparts.
If the funding formula that's currently on the books for members of the minority is applied to the IDC, the conference's central staff would need to trim its payroll by around $1 million worth of central staff salaries, or close to half its current total. Further budget-slashing would also need to occur for members who are no longer committee chairs.
One of the first tests of how unified the conferences truly are will come with the special elections and this fall's primaries. On Wednesday, Cuomo said everybody had agreed to work on the same page.
"We're going to coordinate the entire campaign, we're going to coordinate the congressional campaign with the Assembly campaigns, with the U.S. senatorial campaign, with my gubernatorial efforts, with the Senate efforts — all one because we all have the same message and we have the same goal," the governor said.
Still, the IDC incumbents may still face primary challenges this year. Several insurgents said that they're still planning to run.
"You failed to represent Democratic priorities at the negotiating table, and no Albany deal should or will prevent a competitive, healthy primary in which New Yorkers strongly consider your allegiance with the Republicans," seven primary opponents said in a statement issued Wednesday. "New Yorkers will not be fooled into believing you are 'Democrats' when it is politically convenient for you."
A similar situation has arisen in the past. When Cuomo faced a challenger from the left while attempting to obtain the Working Families Party's nomination in 2014, a never-actualized arrangement was struck in which the IDC was to rejoin the Democratic conference the following year. Primary challengers to IDC incumbents lost the support of the party and labor leaders, and they all wound up losing in September.
This time around, it's clear that at least some significant forces will continue to oppose the IDC incumbents.
Bill Lipton, state director of the Working Families Party, said: "We stand by our endorsed candidates who are challenging IDC incumbents and are proud to be supporting them."
As of January, the eight IDC members had more campaign money available than the 21 mainline Democrats. And with primaries on the horizon, it's an open question as to how much help Klein will be willing to provide in elections like Mayer's.
"My colleagues may still have primaries, so it's my duty to spend what I need to spend to defend the IDC members in primaries," Klein said. "Hopefully those will be dissipated because of this announcement , and if they're not, we'll still spend what we need to spend."
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who raised money in a vain effort to win Democratic control of the Senate in 2014, added a skeptical note when asked about the reunification plan. "There is a lot I think we could do better if we had a Democratic state Senate majority," he said. "I would caution everyone — we'll believe it when we see it and it has to stay that way. I want to see the IDC come back, participate fully in the Democratic conference and then stay permanently."
For Cuomo, the arrangement somewhat minimizes the potential severity of attacks that have been levied against him from the left for years. But as the outline of the agreement emerged, the governor was attacked for the deal by his potential opponents on both sides of the aisle.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro criticized Cuomo for ending the relationship.
"The one thing we know about the Cuomo administration is that everything is for sale," Molinaro said in a statement. "Today he sold out his governing partner in the New York State Senate Republicans and the 11 million people who don't live in New York City in a cynical deal to protect his own political viability."
And Nixon blasted his past relationship with the IDC at a campaign stop..
"The IDC — very like the subway — when there is glory to be gotten, the governor is first in line," Nixon said. "When there is blame, he can't be found, he must've gone upstairs to lie down. You can't have it both ways, Gov. Cuomo: Either the IDC is something you have nothing to do with and try as you might, you try to reconcile them, or you're actually a larger part of how they've been created and fostered and nourished over all these years."
"Let's be honest," said GOP spokesman Reif. "The only reason that any of this is happening now is because Andrew Cuomo is scared to death of Cynthia Nixon."
Marie J. French contributed to this report.