Progressives Step Up to Primary New York’s Rogue Democrats

Image from @NoIDCNY twitter.

Democrats in New York would have a trifecta of power in the state government were it not for the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of eight rogue Democrats who caucus with Republicans in the State Senate. The IDC’s agreement with Republicans provides them with the majority in the State Senate in exchange for perks like bigger offices and committee positions that include lucrative stipends. Since it officially broke away to join State Senate Republicans in 2012, the IDC has stifled progressive legislation ever being voted on by granting Republicans authority over the state senate and what legislation is voted on.

New York Democrats officially hold 32 out of 63 seats in the State Senate, but 9 of those Democrats, all IDC members and another rogue Democrat who caucuses independently with Republicans, Simcha Felder, keep Republicans in power. The New York Times reported in May 2017 that IDC members receive extra pay for chairmanships of committees they don’t actually hold, exploiting a legal loophole. Known as “lulus,” the stipends are supposed to be for extra work state senators conduct on committees, but no laws prohibit committee chairs from funneling those stipends to other legislators.  As the IDC Chair and founder, State Senator Jeff Klein received a $34,000 stipend last year for being named the Senate Chamber’s Vice President Pro Tempore by State Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan. The other seven state senators of the IDC include Marisol Alcantara, David Valesky, Jesse Hamilton, Jose Peralta, Diane Savino, David Carlucci, and Tony Avella. The IDC did not respond to a request for comment.

This power-sharing agreement between the IDC and Republican Party undermines the New York Democratic Party and the opportunity to use the Democratic majority to push through progressive legislation. Among the legislative obstruction the IDC has enabled includes a single-payer healthcare bill that passed in the State Assembly, a DREAM Act bill which would have provided tuition assistance to children of undocumented immigrants, and a bill in 2017 to make New York a sanctuary state for immigrants.

Grassroots activists in New York have increasingly criticized the IDC and pushed the New York Democratic Party to oppose the group. As the IDC has yet to formally rejoin the Democratic Party, progressives are taking it upon themselves to field primary challengers against IDC members.

The organization, NoIDC, has formally backed five candidates running against IDC members, and two other candidates have recently filed to run.

“It’s like what Mark Twain said, dirty diapers and politicians need to be changed for the same reason. That’s why I’m running, it’s time for a change, a new voice, for someone to be an advocate and ally for all groups of people,” said Jasmine Robinson, who is running against IDC Member, State Senator Diane Savino, in an interview with me. Robinson said she was inspired to run during a vigil for Erica Gardner, the daughter of police murder victim Eric Gardner who passed away from a heart attack at the age of 27 this past December. “At the vigil, many people were there and hurting. Many people said the Democratic Party does not care about us, no elected official cares about us, no one is here, no one shows up for us.” Savino’s Senate District encompasses most of the Tompkinsville neighborhood in Staten Island, where Eric Gardner was killed.

The IDC has come under fire even more as its chair and founder, State Senator Jeff Klein was accused of sexual misconduct against a former staffer, first reported by Huffington Post. Klein allegedly forcibly kissed the staffer outside of a bar in Albany, New York. Klein has dismissed calls to resign, and responded by criticizing his accuser.

Klein’s office provided Huffington Post with a misleading photo of the bar, claiming the accuser’s report that it happened outside of it was not possible without everyone in the bar seeing it.

The photos of the bar below were not shared by Klein’s office. Nor was the weather report from the alleged date of the incident.

The allegations have only further emboldened progressive support for IDC challengers seeking to replace the coalition of Democrats working in their own self-interests rather than on behalf of New Yorkers.

“As a mother of two, Queens native, and straphanger, I know our community needs a real Democrat in Albany to fight for stronger schools, more affordable housing, and a subway system that actually works,” said Jessica Ramos in an emailed statement to me. She is challenging IDC member State Senator Jose Peralta. “Now more than ever, state government should be our defensive line against Trump—but instead, Jose Peralta and the IDC are siding with Republicans to block single-payer healthcare, the DREAM Act, and more. Enough is enough.”

Despite the grassroots surge in support for progressives challenging IDC members, the New York Democratic Party has refused to fight back. Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) struck a deal to negotiate with the IDC to rejoin the Democratic Party Caucus, yet that deal has yet to manifest. Even if the IDC rejoined Democrats, critics have argued it does nothing to challenge the political power the IDC wields in the State Senate, and does not prevent them from rejoining Republicans at the opportunity where it becomes politically beneficial for them to do so.

The New Republic reported in May 2017 that the IDC benefits Cuomo because it provides him with the political authority to determine what legislation gets passed without having to directly grapple with progressives in the state if he opted to veto legislation that a presumed Democratic majority in both the state senate and house would produce.

Democratic Party leaders have not condoned primary challengers to the IDC, and several have pushed back against doing so, while others refrain from offering support publicly.

“We have received encouragement from many individual committee members who are eager to have a real Democrat in the race. There have, of course, been some who have pushed back, particularly early on, but we are building support among the rank and file and the momentum is definitely in our direction,” said Rachel May, the Director of Sustainability Education at Syracuse University, who is challenging IDC member State Senator David Valesky. “Many party stalwarts have confided in us that, though unwilling or unable to support us publicly, they are in our corner. At the State level, the Party is awaiting the results of the special elections in April before deciding whom to support.”

Those special elections will decide two state senate seats vacated by Democrat incumbents. The IDC will formally rejoin Democrats in the State Senate as long as those seats remain under Democratic control.

Written by Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a freelance journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has been featured in the Guardian, Miami Herald, Denver Post, The Hill, Observer, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @msainat1.

Michael is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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Progressives Step Up to Primary New York’s Rogue Democrats