Backlash Grows Against State Senate’s Turncoat Democrats

Backlash Grows
Against State Senate’s Turncoat Democrats

Published: 
February 2017

The rift between the mainstream Democrats in the state Senate and the Independent Democratic Conference members who have aligned themselves with the Republicans has blossomed into civil war. IDC chair Jeff Klein’s decision to empower Republicans in the age of Donald Trump has suddenly become a major political issue, and made the IDC’s claim that its alliance with them enables it to promote “progressive” policies ring more and more hollow.

This fight is important to tenants because the Senate Republicans are owned by the New York City real-estate industry, and the IDC has collaborated with them to kill attempts to repair our constantly weaker rent-protection laws. 

Klein’s deal with Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan (Suffolk County) includes giving the eight IDC members positions of power, larger offices, and bigger staff budgets. In January, Flanagan appointed newly elected Democrat Marisol Alcantara of Manhattan as chair of the Labor Committee, and Jesse Hamilton, who defected to the IDC in November, chair of the Banks Committee.

It also seems that Klein (Bronx-Westchester) and Flanagan are dipping into an Albany slush fund to help IDC members buy support in their districts. Hamilton has recently offered several community organizations in his central Brooklyn district $25,000 in state funding.

The latest turncoat is José Peralta of Queens, who defected to the IDC on Jan. 25. So many of his constituents complained that he reluctantly agreed to convene a town hall meeting Feb. 3 to explain his decision. He did not send out any notice of the event, but the news spread quickly through word of mouth and social media, including a growing neighborhood listserv.

The crowd at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights was standing-room-only, while more than 100 people were stuck outside, banging on the windows and chanting “Traitor” and “No IDC.” Dozens of cops behind barricades kept them at bay. Inside, angry constituents accused Peralta of empowering the Republicans and Trump’s extreme right-wing agenda. Peralta kept asking the attendees to “keep an open mind” and see what he can accomplish through the IDC. Most of his comments were greeted with boos and jeers.

Two IDC members, Hamilton and Diane Savino (Staten Island-Brooklyn), attended to support their colleague, but Hamilton quickly bolted. He later lied to a New York Times reporter, claiming that none of his constituents had complained about his defection. Savino stayed until the end, frowning in the front row. Peralta left through the back door to avoid the protesters.

Peralta later accused the mainline Democrats of sending “outside agitators” to disrupt his town hall. But the only obvious outsiders were a small group of young political-intern types holding pro-IDC posters.

 

How did this happen?

For the last five years, Jeff Klein and his cronies have gotten away with cozying up to the GOP. This has been possible because many people pay scant attention to state government, or at least the legislature, and there is limited media coverage of individual members.

The Republicans have had a hard time holding a majority in the 63-member Senate as New York has become a more Democratic state. Twenty years ago, there were six GOP state senators from New York City; today, there are two. The Democrats won a 32-31 majority last November, but one of the 32 is Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who officially caucuses with the Republicans and gives them their 32nd vote. The mainstream Democratic caucus has only 23 senators.

Two things have kept the GOP majority propped up: real-estate money, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s sellout in 2012, when he let the Senate Republicans gerrymander district lines through the 2020 election. Cuomo also collaborated with Klein to cook up the IDC-Republican alliance in the 2013-2014 legislative session, allowing the G.O.P. to control the chamber despite the Democrats having won a 33-30 majority in the 2012 election. Everyone in and around state government understands that Cuomo does not want a Democratic-controlled Senate.

Klein has taken advantage of the demoralization among the mainstream Democrats by aggressively poaching their members. All the IDC recruits have vigorously denied that their defection had anything to do with money or perks, of course. The official line has been that the Democrats have failed to win progressive victories, and the IDC has convinced their Republican allies to enact an increase in the state’s minimum wage and paid family leave.

They don’t mention that those results were half-assed compromises of Democratic proposals. Nor does the IDC wish to talk about legislation introduced by their right-wing allies, including one recent bill that would require universities to compile a database of foreign students and another that would require Mayor Bill de Blasio to turn over applications for the municipal ID card to the Trump administration.

The IDC is now playing the race card, claiming that criticisms of the three newest members, two Latino and one African-American, are racist. The other five—Klein, Savino, Tony Avella (Queens), David Carlucci (Rockland County), and David Valesky (Syracuse)—are white. The difference is that Alcantara, Hamilton, and Peralta’s constituents lean left, and the intense grass-roots reaction to Trump has spilled over. 

The pressure on the IDC has become so intense that on Feb. 8, Savino told a reporter for Kings County Politics that the solution to the impasse would be for Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (Westchester) to resign and make Klein the leader. Felder told reporters that if the IDC returns to the fold, he would be willing to consider rejoining his fellow Democrats.

 

What is at stake for tenants

While the Republicans are captives of the real-estate industry, Jeff Klein is just as beholden to landlords. His campaign-finance filings show that he takes tons of real-estate money. Last August he raised, and spent, more than $500,000 in independent expenditures by the IDC’s political arm to help elect Alcantara, who won a four-way primary with 33 percent of the vote. The bulk of this money came from real estate and the hedge-fund billionaires behind the attacks on public education.

Klein has refused to sponsor any of the major pro-tenant bills in Albany. One of these would repeal the “preferential rent” eviction loophole, which allows landlords to hit rent-stabilized tenants with increases of several hundred dollars when their leases come up for renewal. Last spring, there were two town hall meetings in the northeast Bronx part of his district where tenant after tenant testified about being forced to give up their stabilized apartments because of those rent increases. Diane Savino has also refused to put her name on the bill, although according to the Independent Budget Office, 45 percent of stabilized tenants on Staten Island have preferential rents and are therefore at risk of eviction.

Four IDC members are sponsors of the bill, introduced by Liz Krueger (Manhattan): Alcantara, Avella, Hamilton, and Peralta.

What will these senators do to convince their leader to persuade John Flanagan to let this bill out of committee and pass it? If it comes to the floor, it would be hard for the two Republicans from the city, Marty Golden (Brooklyn) and Andrew Lanza (Staten Island), to vote no.

A new Web site, noIDCny.org, lists upcoming actions against IDC members.