Koppell Versus Klein: A State Senate Race With National Implications for Democrats and Progressives

Primary season has begun to roll out across the country, including some hotly contested -- and some just plain bizarre -- races for governor, Congress and other local and state offices. One primary of note is in a State Senate race here in New York, and it has already attracted national attention, as well as mine, as it involves my State Senate district. This race is, in many ways, a microcosm of what is wrong with our political process nationally, as it pits an establishment-supported, "Republicrat" -- aka a Democrat who acts like a Republican -- incumbent in Senator Jeffrey Klein, against a lifelong Progressive, Oliver Koppell, who is a former Attorney General, New York State Assemblyman and New York City Council member. In his 35-year career, which has featured a record of exemplary public service -- along with a few political "warts" -- Mr. Koppell has sponsored 290 bills, all of which passed -- how many legislators at any level can make that claim? -- an achievement he proudly emphasized in his speech to the Ben Franklin Reform Democratic Club in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx on May 22 during its candidate endorsement vote.

A standing-room-only crowd filled the local American Legion Hall for the meeting, despite the stormy, rain-swept night. This was democracy in action, I thought, as I looked around the room. That was, until I was handed literature from the Club lauding the record of Senator Klein and all but negating the career of Mr. Koppell, with no mention of his many outstanding accomplishments. Indeed, the literature urged the Club -- in bold print -- to endorse Mr. Klein, and on top was prominently displayed the address of his website and the slogan, "Jeff Klein: A Senator You Can Count On." Meanwhile, there was nothing so prominently displayed for Mr. Koppell -- his website is www.oliverkoppell.com, by the way. Clearly, the Club had thrown its support behind Senator Klein and was attempting to influence the vote before it could even take place.

The Ben Franklin Club, which has been around for 54 years and is mainly a bastion of the Democratic establishment -- they supported Hillary Clinton for President in 2008 -- then opened the meeting by saying that, while they had supported Mr. Koppell in the past, they could not do so now, as Mr. Klein's achievements have been "remarkable," so why change? They praised Mr. Klein for working with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to bring in $300 million to expand Pre-K education in the city, as if Mr. Klein was the lone player in this effort. They credited Mr. Klein with passing the SAFE Act to enact stronger statewide gun laws, despite the fact that the majority of the people in the state -- and the governor -- also support such legislation. They noted that the senator is a strong supporter of the women's equality agenda, but the Women's Equality Act, which was introduced by Governor Cuomo and overwhelmingly passed in the assembly, fell prey to the meddling of the Senate "leadership" -- of which Senator Klein is supposedly a member -- and the anti-choice stance of the Republicans and two Republicrats, and failed to be fully passed in the Senate. Mr. Koppell felt it would have garnered at least some GOP support and passed had it been one bill -- instead of being divided into ten separate bills by those in charge. Then there is the DREAM Act -- which provides funding assistance for higher education for the kids of undocumented immigrants -- which also flamed out in the Senate on the senator's watch.

And finally, there is the signature issue for Governor Cuomo -- public funding of campaigns -- which is nowhere on the State Senate's radar, either. And why should it be? After all, Mr. Klein has $1.5 million in campaign donations in his election coffers as of January, a majority of which come from big-dollar donors like lawyers, the real estate industry -- including builders and landlords -- and special interest PAC's. Such prolific fundraising -- and the influence that surely comes with it -- would come to an end under the public funding model, so it's not hard to imagine Mr. Klein's position on this issue. In a letter to the Ben Franklin Club membership, Mr. Koppell noted that $800,000 in donations to Senator Klein's campaign have come from real estate interests, along with more than $300,000 from nursing homes and healthcare corporations.

Retired Judge Alan Saks asked the senator at the Ben Franklin endorsement vote, "How much money have you received from the charter school lobby?" Mr. Klein almost fell over his own tongue trying to come up with an answer to that one, ultimately saying he couldn't recall the amount donated to his campaign. Well, Senator, we might remind you that the fundraising arm of your so-called Independent Democratic Conference ("IDC") has taken in at least $5,000 from a Republican front group called StudentsFirst, which supports education "reform," particularly in the form of charter schools.

In a significant New York Daily News story that came out on Memorial Day, Kenneth Lovett reported that Gov. Cuomo will take action to reunite State Senate Democrats and toss the GOP from power in the State Senate if public funding of campaigns is not passed before the end of the current session on June 19. The IDC was supposed to come to a deal on this issue by the end of May, so now Klein and GOP Senate leader Dean Skelos must step up and show what kind of leaders they are. This could inspire similar action elsewhere in the country to go to public funding of campaigns, so New York must take the lead on this issue.

One thing that has endeared Senator Klein to this community is his freezing - for now - of a proposed expansion and intrusion into the community of an eleven story medical building run by Montefiore Medical Center. It was projected that 1,000 patients would be coming to this new center daily in an area where limited parking already makes it a nightmare for local residents. So the Senator took on this popular community issue and was successful, making it so that no such project could go forward without input from the community on its size and location -- he done good on this one.

And so, in a ballot vote, 11 voted not to endorse that evening, while 96 voted in favor of endorsing Mr. Klein and 38 voted to endorse Mr. Koppell. As Senator Elizabeth Warren might say, "the game (was) rigged" against Mr. Koppell from the start. I, along with many others present, am not a member of the Ben Franklin Club, but am an interested member of the community. Mr. Koppell has been a Club member since 1966, and has supported one previous and one current member of the New York City Council, as well as our current Assemblyman, all of whom threw him under the bus by endorsing Mr. Klein -- so much for loyalty. The local Conservative newspaper, The Riverdale Review, has lauded Senator Klein, while deriding Mr. Koppell with a series of un-substantiated personal attacks. Mr. Koppell, in an eloquent and impassioned speech to the room, said to the Senator, "Have you no decency, Senator Klein?" and spoke of the core Democratic and Progressive values of the party, its achievements in New York's history, and the smack in the face to the State Senate's Democratic caucus and the people of New York by Senator Kein's defection.

That is at the heart of why Oliver Koppell is running in this race. Jeff Klein turned his back on his own party and made a naked power grab for himself by entering into a power-sharing deal with GOP Senate minority leader Dean Skelos and forming the IDC, taking with him four other Republicrats to make up a six-person cabal which, for one thing, has the authority to effectively veto any legislation they don't like before it even gets a vote. As a result, Senator Klein has given control of the Senate back to the GOP, which, after the 2012 elections, held only 29 seats, compared to 32 for the Dems. As a reward for his scheming, Senator Klein was named the co-leader of the Senate with Senator Skelos, as well as its President. The Progressive community was rightfully outraged by this coup, but apparently establishment Democrats like the Ben Franklin "Reform" Club did not take it so hard. So just what are they reforming - reality? Senator Klein's tortured reasoning for his political dirty trick was "...because nothing was getting done with the Democrats," and he felt more bi-partisanship would take place with an IDC. So he is saying he could not have made a difference had he remained in a strengthened Democratic caucus, and could only achieve "bi-partisanship" by becoming a lackey of the GOP minority? It is also worth noting that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg - who was once a Democrat, then became a Republican, and finally decided to become an Independent - has also donated $150,000 to the IDC, according to Mr. Koppell.

With huge support from Progressives - especially Daily Kos, which secured 11,000 signatures and $28,000 in donations within five days of coming out for him - Oliver Koppell jumped into a race just five months after he was - finally - term-limited out of the City Council. (That was one of those "warts" in his otherwise distinguished career, as he wrote the legislation to extend the City Council and Mayor Bloomberg to a third term. I questioned Mr. Koppell about that, and he insisted -- as he did at the Ben Franklin Club endorsement vote -- that he does not believe in term limits. Another political "wart" came with Mr. Koppel's supporting Mayor Bloomberg in his quest for a third term as mayor. Mr. Koppell had supported Democrats in the first two elections, and mentioned to me that he thought Mr. Bloomberg had done a good job early on, but later came to regret his decision.)

I interviewed Oliver Koppell a few days before the endorsement vote at the Ben Franklin Club, and I asked him what some of his proudest achievements have been:

  • Reforming the justice system in New York State. Mr. Koppell authored a bill ending elections to the Court of Appeals, and provided for merit appointments by the Governor after recommendations by a screening panel.

  • Consumer protection laws. Mr. Koppell was the lead sponsor of The Utility Consumer Bill of Rights, protecting consumers against unfair utility practices, and was also the sponsor of the used car "Lemon" law, among others.
  • The Returnable Bottle Law. Mr. Koppell was the lead sponsor of this bill in 1982, which took ten years to pass, providing for the return of a five cent deposit on every plastic bottle that is returned to the store. In New York State alone, over 100 billion bottles and cans have been returned because of the five cent deposit.
  • Co-sponsoring the Living Wage Law in the New York City Council, stipulating that every corporation that receives a subsidy from the city must pay a living wage to its employees.
  • Passing environmental legislation and being voted Environmental Legislator of the Year twice by the State Environment Planning Lobby. Mr. Koppell has led on this issue with the New York Environmental Quality Review Act, which requires that any action taken by the government must appear in a report that documents its impact and consequences on the environment. In addition, thanks to Mr. Koppell, there is also the Fresh Waters Protection Act, which protects fresh water wetlands.
  • I also asked Mr. Koppell for some of the reasons that made him decide to run in this race:

    • He is angered that the State Senate had the vote to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour and didn't do it under Senator Klein's leadership - it remains at $8 per hour. Mr. Koppell personally supports a raise to $15 an hour, indexed to inflation.

  • The failure of the State Senate to pass the Women's Equality Act. It is an Omnibus bill that addresses ten critical women's issues, including human trafficking and wage equality.
  • Bringing public matching of campaign funds to state races, which has worked so well in New York City for many years.
  • Amending the US Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions. A letter calling on Congress to take action is now circulating in Albany and is being signed by some members of the Assembly and Senate. Of course, no GOP members have signed - they know who their bosses are, and it's not the people of New York State.
  • Mr. Koppell strongly supports tenant protection laws, an issue on which Senator Klein - with all of his landlord and real estate industry support - has been very weak. Mr. Koppell proposes a repeal of the Urstadt Law - in existence since the 70's - which prevents New York City from passing any rent regulations that are more strict than the state's. Mr. Koppell believes that the city should have the power to regulate its own rents.
  • Stronger environmental protection laws, with a moratorium on fracking in New York State until more research is produced. (We disagree on that one, as I -- along with many other New Yorkers -- want fracking banned outright. After all, the anti-fracking research is impressive and abundant.) He did concede that it should be kept away from watersheds and other water sources, but water is also a major ingredient in the process, and we cannot afford to have this precious, public resource wasted on this dirty process for extracting yet another fossil fuel. Mr. Koppell also had not considered closing down the nuclear facility at Indian Point in Westchester, which must also happen.
  • The failure of the DREAM Act to pass in the Senate. Mr. Koppell accuses Senator Klein of bringing it to the floor, knowing he didn't have the votes.
  • Enacting stronger consumer protection laws. Mr. Koppell uses as an example what is going on now with the recalls of millions of cars for numerous safety issues. More must be done to prevent dangerous cars like these from being on the road in the first place.
  • Mr. Koppell supports public schools and believes they should not share space with charter schools, and he believes that the Mayor should have limited jurisdiction over charter schools. Overall, he did not voice disapproval of charter schools, though.
  • Mr. Koppell is also a supporter of single-payer national health insurance, which we discussed when I first met him years ago on the street in our neighborhood as he campaigned for the City Council.
  • And Mr. Koppell was particularly disturbed that under IDC leadership, no African American or minority Senator holds a Chairmanship or leadership position in the State Senate.
  • All of this should serve as a cautionary tale and wake-up call to Democrats and Progressives across the country that we can no longer support and condone tepid Republicrats that don't really support the values of the Democratic Party. We cannot afford to play it safe, but must move forward with an agenda that is People-centered and not subservient to corporate and special interests. We must also remember other so-called Democrats and the damage they have done to our party and the country in the past, like former US Senators Joe Lieberman and Max Baucus, who both should have long ago switched to the GOP. Were it not for Max, who was Chair of the Senate's Finance Committee as the Affordable Care Act was being written, we would have had single-payer on the table and could have learned of its merits - the nation deserved that much at least. Mr. Baucus was also one of the largest recipients of special interest money in Congress, by the way.

    It is also worth noting that former NYC Comptroller John Liu recently announced that he is challenging State Senator Tony Avella - one of the other Republicrat members of the IDC - for his seat. With the rise to political prominence of true Progressives like Oliver Koppell and John Liu, as well as US Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Representatives Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Keith Ellison (D-MN), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and a host of others across the country, we might ask if indeed a new day is dawning for Progressives? After all, if passionate, Progressive talents like these can't turn around the moribund Democratic Party, then maybe it is time we started a Progressive Party in this country.

    Just a thought...

    - with Jonathan Stone