Monday marked the first day that the former breakaway Democrats in the New York State Senate are working with the mainstream Democrats after they agreed to reunify earlier this month. Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says so far it’s all proceeding smoothly, but she dampened expectations that new major legislation would get done before the session ends in June.
At the Senate’s first meeting since the spring holiday break, the official reunification of the Independent Democratic Conference and the mainstream Democrats was put in motion by Senator Mike Gianaris on the Senate floor.
“We’ll be adding eight members to the Democratic Conference of the state senate,” Gianaris told the chamber. “And making concomitant changes to leadership and committee assignments.”
Gianaris is giving up his post as Deputy Senate Leader to the former IDC Leader Jeff Klein, starting Tuesday. Klein had no comment on the changes.
Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, in an interview in her office, says the reunification with Senator Klein is going well.
“So far, so good,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We met over the break. I’ve always had a good relationship with him, though obviously it’s been strained over the years. But, I think for both of us it is relief to really put all that aside and try and come back because it's good for the people of New York. It's good for the people we represent."
The Senate Democratic Conference now has 29 seats, to the Republicans’ 31. There is a 30th Democrat, Senator Simcha Felder. Felder, who has more conservative views than most Democrats on many issues, prefers to meet with the Republicans and for now will continue that arrangement. That gives the GOP the 32 seats required to form a majority in the chamber, although Democrats are lobbying Felder to switch his allegiance. Senator Stewart–Cousins says Felder would be a “valuable member” if he chose to join the Democrats.
“He’s certainly open to the conversation,” Stewart-Cousins said, though she said “there’s been no commitment."
There are two vacant Senate seats, and a special election will be held on April 24 to fill them. Democrats are favored to win both seats, and could have the 32 seats they need to form a majority. But if Senator Felder does not join the Democrats, the GOP will keep control of the chamber until the session ends in early summer.
Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo put a number of progressive issues into his state budget proposal, including the Dream Act, to give college aid to the children of undocumented immigrants, early voting measures and reforming the criminal justice system to end cash bail. The GOP-led Senate rejected most of the items and they did not end up in the final state spending plan.
Senate Democrats and the former IDC members all support those measures, but Senator Stewart-Cousins says it is not likely that they will be approved this year. She says after the special elections take place on April 24, there will only be a couple of dozen working days left in the session.
“The agenda will be constricted because of the time frame,” she said.
Senator Stewart-Cousins says Democrats hope to gain more seats in November and approve the measures next year.
Republicans, meanwhile, say they don’t expect there will be much disruption from the Democrats’ reunification in the remaining months of the session.
Governor Cuomo brokered the merger earlier in April, after Cuomo received criticism from the left in his party, who said he did not do enough to promote Democrats in the Senate. Senate Republican Deputy Majority Leader John DeFrancisco says the move was made solely to benefit the governor’s political fortunes.
“Unity helps him and that’s what his main guiding light is,” said DeFrancisco who is challenging Cuomo for governor. “’If it helps me it’s good, if it doesn’t help me it’s wrong’.”
In an open letter released to the members of the state’s Democratic Party, Cuomo praised the reunification of the Democrats in the Senate, saying the “Democratic political world was revolutionized” and that the change will have “profound” long-term consequences.