New York’s Renegade Democrats Face Growing Calls To Rejoin Party Fold

Despite a Democratic majority in the state senate, Republicans control the upper chamber.

National Democratic leaders called on a group of breakaway Democrats in the New York state senate to split from Republicans after a special election upheld the party’s majority in the chamber.

Democrats have 32 seats in the state senate, but eight senators in the Independent Democratic Conference have chosen to form a majority coalition with the Republicans. An additional senator who does not belong to the IDC, Simcha Felder, has chosen to caucus outright with Republicans. The defections have handed the GOP control of the chamber.

Mainline senate Democrats have long prioritized the return of the IDC to the party fold because they say it would help win back Felder and allow Democrats to claim their rightful majority.

What was unusual this week was just how many nationally prominent Democrats joined in these calls. The catalyzing event was Democrat Brian Benjamin’s victory Tuesday in a special election for a Harlem senate seat. The win restored Democrats’ numerical majority after a brief vacancy in the seat for a few months.

Benjamin’s election gives New York “the opportunity to become the seventh state in the nation with a completely Democratic state government,” said Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in a statement. “To accomplish that, the Democratic Party, which stands for working families, must unite in New York and everywhere.”

For years after an internal party dispute prompted the formation of the IDC in 2011, the breakaway faction lingered in relative obscurity.

But since the November elections in which Democrats regained their numerical majority in the chamber, scrutiny on the IDC has grown. Perhaps more importantly, President Donald Trump’s victory energized the state’s progressive activists who were shocked to learn that Republicans control a legislative body in deep-blue New York due to an anomalous divide.

Grassroots liberals have organized protests against the IDC’s eight members since January, which have at times drawn upwards of 100 people.

New York state assemblyman Michael Blake, a DNC vice chair, emphasized the importance of Democratic state governments in blocking Trump’s agenda in a statement calling on the IDC and Felder to rejoin the mainstream party.

“For New Yorkers to have policies that create jobs with better wages and promote equity in all that we do; for the good of the country that needs us united as a party, it is time for Sen. Simcha Felder and members of the Independent Democratic Conference to end their alliance with the GOP and rejoin the mainline State Senate Democratic Coalition,” Blake said.

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), another DNC vice chair, joined him in a separate statement. Meng also co-signed a letter from all 18 of New York’s Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives calling on all of the breakaway Democrats to “return to the Democratic Conference.”

And the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democratic state legislators, called on the IDC specifically to rejoin the rest of the party following Benjamin’s election on Tuesday.

On Monday, the IDC launched its own appeal for unity with a “Call the Roll” letter asking all 32 Senate Democrats to commit themselves to fight for seven “key progressive issues,” including single-payer health care, expanding abortion rights, and adopting public campaign financing.

IDC spokeswoman Candice Giove referred HuffPost to “Call the Roll” in response to questions about the national pressure on the IDC.

“Thirty two is not a magic number unless there are 32 Democrats who are ready to stand up and unite on policies that combat Donald Trump,” Giove said. “Until we achieve unity and stand up for women, immigrants, and the most vulnerable New Yorkers, all talk about a majority is nothing more than meaningless rhetoric on the part of failed leadership.”

New York state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, speaks at the Annual Endometriosis Foundation of America's Medical Conference on April 11, 2015.
New York state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, speaks at the Annual Endometriosis Foundation of America's Medical Conference on April 11, 2015.
John Lamparski/Getty Images

But for state Sen. Mike Gianaris, deputy leader of the 23-member mainline Democratic conference, the individual views of senators are besides the point.

“They are giving power to the Republicans to decide whether those issues get brought up at all,” he said. “Things that do get done, get done much later than they should or get watered down.”

Gianaris considers recent legislation raising New York’s age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18 an example of the latter.

Until the reform passed in April, New York had been one of just two states to charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

But as the result of compromises with the Republicans who control the senate, the new legislation would still require those charged with nonviolent felonies to begin their case in criminal court. After 30 days, they would automatically be sent to family court unless the district attorney demonstrates that there are “extraordinary circumstances” that require them to stay in criminal court.

And New Yorkers at those ages accused of violent felonies would have to meet three criteria assessing the severity of the crime before they could proceed.

The limitations of the “Raise the Age” legislation rankle many progressive Senate Democrats, including Gianaris, who maintains that a simpler increase would have been possible without Republican Senate control.

Giove pointed to civil rights advocates’ praise for the role of the IDC and its leader, Sen. Jeffrey Klein, in helping broker the deal that ensured the legislation’s passage.

“Senator Klein and the IDC deserve enormous credit for their exceptional leadership in this effort,” said Judge Jonathan Lippman, former Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, in a statement at the time.

Mainline Democrats accuse the IDC of allying with Republicans because of the power it gives them as a crucial lynchpin in giving the Republicans a governing majority.

Some of the perks are quite literal. Senate Republicans have distributed generous financial stipends normally reserved for committee chairs to IDC members who serve on these committees as well, often as the second-highest ranking member.

New York’s attorney general and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn have opened investigations into the legality of the practice since The New York Times first reported it this month.

The IDC members are quick to note that even if they rejoined the mainline Democratic Party, it would still not have a majority unless Simcha Felder caucused with the party as well.

In a Wednesday letter to IDC leader Klein, Felder lashed out at the IDC’s “Call the Roll” initiative.

“Although I am no longer a practicing CPA, it would make more sense for your 25 percent [of Democrats] to rejoin the rest of the Democrats, rather than everyone else join you and support issues you deem a priority,” he wrote. “Who are you to decide what the legislative priorities are for loyal Democrats across New York State?”

Felder went on to ask the IDC to “publicly unite” with Democrats, if they “truly seek unity.” He stopped short of promising to join them if they did so, claiming only that he would “welcome unity if it effectuates my priority to have the greatest positive impact on my constituents and all New Yorkers.”

“It’s telling that Simcha Felder didn’t sign the pledge,” Giove said, referring to the “Call the Roll” letter. “We now see where he stands on these seven crucial issues.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the IDC caucuses with Republicans, whereas it merely provides the Republican Party with the votes needed to form a majority. Legislators who caucus together participate in the same conference meetings, and IDC members and Senate Republicans do not.

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