Shakeup In The State Senate: Mainline And Independent Democratic Conferences Reunite

At a Tuesday, April 3 meeting in New York City, an agreement was reached that could dramatically change the power structure of New York state government. At the urging of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) (led by Leader Jeff Klein) agreed to dissolve, and its eight members agreed to rejoin the Senate Democratic Conference (led by Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins). On Wednesday, April 4, Gov. Cuomo held a press conference with Sens. Stewart-Cousins, Klein, and others to announce the new arrangement. The impact of this agreement—if it actually goes into effect—will be felt for some time to come, and will affect both politics and public policy in the State of New York. Specifically, a reunification would bring the Democrats closer to re-taking control of the New York State Senate.

The History of the IDC

For most of the past 100 years, the New York State Senate has been controlled by the Republican Party. However, the Democratic Party took control of the Senate following the 2008 elections. The 2009-2010 legislative session was marred by the 2009 Senate leadership dispute (also known as the “Senate coup”), which resulted in gridlock, litigation, and embarrassment for both parties. In the 2010 elections, the Republicans retook a majority in the Senate.

In January 2011, Sens. Klein, Diane Savino, David Valesky, and David Carlucci broke away from the Senate Democratic Conference and formed the IDC. At the time, Sen. Klein—who had previously served as the Deputy Democratic Leader—stated that the split was caused by a lack of confidence in then-Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson. Following the passage of same-sex “marriage” legislation in 2011, Senate Republicans lost their majority status in the 2012 elections; however, in December 2012, the Republicans and the IDC formed a power-sharing arrangement that allowed the two groups to jointly control the Senate.

The relationship between the IDC and the Republicans created challenges for both groups. Among some Democratic and left-leaning groups, members of the IDC were (and still are) treated as traitors for allying themselves with Republicans. Much more importantly, the IDC put pressure on Senate Republicans to pass liberal laws so that IDC members could impress their Democratic constituents. When Republicans gave in to these demands (for example, by passing a $15-per-hour minimum wage law in 2016), they betrayed their conservative principles; when the Republicans stood firm, they risked alienating the IDC and jeopardizing the alliance between the two groups. The clearest illustration of the risks involved in allowing the IDC to gain power occurred in June 2013, when the IDC attempted to attach a late-term abortion expansion bill to another piece of legislation through the use of a hostile amendment. By the grace of God, the amendment failed—but it came within one vote of passing.

Prior to the 2014 elections, the IDC—whose members faced several primary challenges that year—encountered pressure to end their power-sharing arrangement with the GOP and align themselves with the Senate Democratic Conference. Gov. Cuomo, who received a primary challenge from leftist law professor Zephyr Teachout, was criticized for his perceived support for the IDC-Republican alliance. In June 2014, the IDC agreed to rejoin the Senate Democrats following the fall elections. Under the terms of that agreement, Leaders Stewart-Cousins and Klein were to serve as co-leaders of the Senate Democratic Conference. However, after the Republicans retook the Senate majority that fall, the IDC reversed course and remained allied with Senate Republicans. While Leader Klein continued to have a seat at the table in budget negotiations, and while IDC members continued to have preferred status regarding legislation and committee chairships, the IDC no longer shared control of the Senate with the Republicans. Despite recent efforts to reunite the two Democratic conferences, the IDC maintained its alliance with Senate Republicans in 2015, 2016, 2017, and the early months of 2018.

Recent Developments

According to The New York Times, Gov. Cuomo called a meeting at a midtown Manhattan restaurant last Tuesday afternoon. The meeting was attended by Leaders Stewart-Cousins and Klein, Rep. Joseph Crowley, and various union leaders. At the meeting, the Governor reportedly called for the immediate reunification of the Senate Democrats and urged Sen. Klein to “‘end the IDC altogether.’” Leader Klein quickly agreed. It was also agreed that Leader Stewart-Cousins would remain the sole Senate Democratic Leader, and that Leader Klein would return to the Deputy Democratic Leader post that he held years ago. (At this time, it is not clear what position Sen. Mike Gianaris—the current Deputy Democratic Leader, and a longtime Klein rival—would hold in the new system.) Furthermore, the new agreement calls for incumbent Democratic senators to avoid supporting primary challenges against other incumbent Democratic senators (at this time, seven of the eight current IDC members face primary challenges). The next day, the Governor, Leader Stewart-Cousins, and Leader Klein held a press conference to announce the unification agreement.



Gov. Cuomo’s About-Face

Many political observers—including Albany Update—believe that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has tacitly supported the Independent Democratic Conference throughout its existence. The IDC functions as an insurance policy for the Senate Republicans; it helps them to remain in power. Having a Republican-led Senate has enabled the Governor—a shrewd power broker—to play the Senate off against the Democrat-led Assembly and maintain his own political supremacy in Albany. Why, then, has Gov. Cuomo become a supporter of Senate Democratic reunification?

The answer is that the Governor believes a reunification will advance the one cause that he places above all others: His political career. There are two potential reasons unity amongst Senate Democrats could benefit Gov. Cuomo politically. The first reason is Cynthia Nixon. Nixon, an actress and activist who is challenging Gov. Cuomo in a Democratic primary this year, has subjected the Governor to a barrage of criticism for his alleged support for the IDC and failure to push for a Democratic Senate majority. If the reunification plan takes effect, this line of criticism will be neutralized. The second reason? The Governor’s presidential aspirations. If Gov. Cuomo pulls the trigger on a presidential campaign in 2020, he will need to win over Democrats who (accurately) believe him to be a transactional politician instead of a true-blue leftist. Uniting Senate Democrats would help him woo those voters.

Will the Reunification Really Happen?

At this writing, the agreement between the Senate Democratic Conference and the IDC has not yet been implemented. Until the IDC has been disbanded, it is still possible that the deal could fall through.

Because the IDC went back on its 2014 agreement to reunite with the Senate Democratic Conference, there is uncertainty about whether the IDC will follow through on this new agreement. The New York Times reports that “[skepticism] abounds, and many details, including the division of staffing and budget for a unified conference, remain unresolved.” Furthermore, a member of the Senate Democratic Conference stated that his conference “would proceed cautiously because ‘we’ve been sabotaged before.’ ‘Let’s accept it—but sleep with one eye open,’ the senator said.”

Of course, the difference between this reunification and past “reunifications” is Gov. Cuomo’s level of involvement. If this reunification doesn’t happen, Gov. Cuomo will have egg on his face. This Governor isn’t about to let that happen. While it would be rash to be too certain, Albany Update believes that the Senate Democrats will join forces in the very near future.

If the Senate Democratic Conference and the IDC Reunite, What Happens Then?

At this time, 31 of the 63 seats in the Senate are held by Republicans, 29 are held by Democrats (21 by members of the Senate Democratic Conference, and eight by members of the IDC), and one is held by Sen. Simcha Felder—a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the Senate Republicans, but has made it clear throughout his Senate career that he is open to caucusing with either party.

There are two vacancies in the New York State Senate. On April 24, special elections will be held in Senate District 32 (Bronx) and Senate District 37 (Westchester County) to fill those vacancies. In District 32, Asm. Luis Sepulveda (D) faces Patrick Delices (R) and Pamela Stewart-Martinez (Reform) in a heavily Democratic district. In the Democrat-leaning District 37, a hard-fought race is underway between Asm. Shelley Mayer (D) and former Rye Councilwoman Julie Killian (R).

If Julie Killian wins the April 24 special election in Senate District 37, the proposed Democratic reunification will fall short of its goal of attaining a Senate majority this year. However, if the Democrats should win both special elections, the Senate would consist of 31 enrolled Republicans, 31 enrolled Democrats, and Sen. Felder. In this eventuality, the Democrats would place heavy pressure on Sen. Felder to join the Senate Democratic Conference. This situation could lead to any one of four potential outcomes:

  1. Felder resists the pressure to switch conferences and remains a member of the Senate Republican Conference this year. The balance of power in the Senate remains unchanged for the remainder of the 2018 legislative session. (Albany Update finds this outcome to be more likely than not).
  2. Felder moves to the Senate Democratic Conference, giving it a 32-31 majority. However, because Senate rules require 38 votes to elect a new Senate Majority Leader in mid-session, Senate Republicans remain in control of the Senate for the remainder of the 2018 legislative session. (Albany Update finds this outcome to be unlikely.)
  3. Felder moves to the Senate Democratic Conference, giving it a 32-31 majority. In spite of Senate rules requiring 38 votes to elect a new Senate Majority Leader in mid-session, Senate Democrats find a procedural loophole allowing them to elect Andrea Stewart-Cousins as Senate Majority Leader. (Albany Update finds this outcome to be highly unlikely).
  4. Felder moves to the Senate Democratic Conference, giving it a 32-31 majority. In spite of Senate rules requiring 38 votes to elect a new Senate Majority Leader in mid-session, Senate Democrats find a procedural loophole allowing them to elect Andrea Stewart-Cousins as Senate Majority Leader. However, Senate Republicans challenge the election in court, leading to gridlock and litigation that is reminiscent of the 2009 Senate coup. (Albany Update finds this outcome to be unlikely, but within the realm of possibility).

Why Conservatives Should Care About the Proposed Reunification

At New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, the balance of power in the State Senate has a major impact upon our lobbying efforts in Albany.

For many years, the State Senate has often acted as a bulwark against anti-life, anti-family, anti-religious freedom bills. Year after year, bad bills that pass the Assembly are ignored in the Senate. Admittedly, the Senate has been an imperfect bulwark (same-sex “marriage,” the NY SAFE Act, and the $15-per-hour minimum wage come to mind). However, for every bad bill that has slipped through the Senate in recent years, many others have been blocked over and over again (for example, late-term abortion expansion, the abortion pill insurance mandate, the Bathroom Bill, the Counselor Coercion Bill, and physician-assisted suicide).

If control of the Senate shifts to the Democratic Party, New Yorkers can expect this laundry list of bad bills to become law. Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins is a strong and determined supporter of late-term abortion expansion. Sen. Diane Savino of the IDC is the lead sponsor of physician-assisted suicide legislation. Sen. Brad Hoylman sponsors a raft of LGBT-agenda bills. Without a Republican majority in the Senate, there would no longer be a place in the legislative process where these damaging proposals could be derailed.