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NY Leg's Smallest Faction May Be Its Most Influential

The state capitol in Albany
Dave Lucas
The state capitol in Albany.

A faction of breakaway Democrats in the New York State Senate, known as the Independent Democratic Conference, has been in the news lately for receiving stipend payments for chairing committees that the senators in fact did not chair. What is the history of this power brokering group of senators and what may be in store for its future?

Let’s go back to January 5, 2011, the day of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s first State of the State speech. Senator Jeff Klein, who represents portions of the Bronx, announced that he and three other senators would be forming their own political caucus, separate from the rest of the Democrats.

“The most important thing we can do as elected officials is win back the voters’ trust,” Klein said at the time.

The Senate Democrats had just gone through an embarrassing time. Their brief two years in power in the chamber included a leadership coup, and corruption allegations that would eventually lead to convictions of three of the Democrats’ top leaders. Senator Klein had been the Democrats’ election strategist in 2010, when the GOP took the chamber back. He said now, the Independent Democrats would work more closely with the Republicans in the Senate “in a bipartisan fashion." 

The IDC became instant power brokers in a closely divided state senate. Though they had pledged to be a separate faction, they did form a leadership coalition with the Republicans after the 2012 elections. That year, Democrats won 33 seats, one more than the 32 needed to hold the majority. The IDC, which had grown to five members, sided with the GOP, and Senator Klein and then-Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos even held the title of temporary president of the senate on alternative days. Skelos is now facing prison time for corruption. 

In 2017, Democrats once again numerically hold the majority with 32 seats, but Republicans continue to rule the chamber. That’s partly because the Democrats are still split between the regular Democrats, and the Independent Democrats, now at eight members.  

The byzantine structure is further complicated by the fact that one Senate Democrat, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, actually conferences with the Republicans. Felder is the one that tips the GOP conference’s balance to the key number of 32 needed to rule the chamber.

In a state and nation intensely polarized by the election of President Donald Trump, IDC members have been getting some unwanted attention in their districts, from Democratic voters who want them to rejoin the mainstream Democrats.

Senator Jose Peralta, the newest member of the IDC, is among those who faced a backlash at town hall meetings in his Queens district this past winter, where they chanted “throw him out”, and some even called him a “traitor”.

The IDC blamed the protests on organizers from outside the senators’ districts. And Peralta says the name calling and “cannibalizing” among Democrats is one more example of why he left the regular democrats.

In May, the New York Times reported that three of the IDC members, as well as some Republican senators received stipends, known in Capitol parlance as “lulus” for chairing committees, when they in fact were not the chairs of the committees.

Senator Klein tried to downplay the accusations.

“Welcome to Albany’s version of lulu land,” Klein said on May 16, making a play on words on the hit movie “La La Land. “ That’s all we seem to talk about.”

But federal and state prosecutors are looking into the matter, at least one subpoena has been issued.

The IDC is trying to win back its reputation, even releasing its own promotional video. In it, Klein says the breakaway Democrats support a modern kind of “progressive” philosophy, and will not allow the “dysfunctionality of the past to prevail”.  

Klein argues that the IDC has helped convince Republicans to act on left-leaning issues, including the passage of a minimum wage increase and paid family leave in 2016, and universal pre-kindergarten.

Relations between the Independent Democrats and the regular Democrats since 2011 have been chilly, and have turned even colder since the stipend scandal.  The leader of the mainstream democrats, Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, says the public is awakened, and isn’t pleased that the Democrats are split.

“For the first time, in a very long time, people are paying attention,” Stewart-Cousins said.

But Senator Stewart-Cousins has said she hopes for an eventual reunification. Klein, however, told the Buffalo News that he believes it’s Stewart-Cousins who should resign her leadership post, and that the IDC will not be re-joining  the rest of the Democrats anytime soon. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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