IDC Under Siege As Voters Elect Democratic Majority

IDC Under Siege
As Voters Elect Democratic Majority

June 2017

Photo courtesy of NO IDC NY Facebook Page.Photo courtesy of NO IDC NY Facebook Page. When Brian Benjamin won the Harlem special election for the New York state Senate on May 23 with 91.6% of the vote, it gave a nominal 32-31 majority to Democrats. However, Republicans still run the chamber because eight senators elected as Democrats—led by Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx and Westchester and calling themselves the Independent Democratic Conference—vote with the 31 Republicans to maintain Republican John Flanagan as majority leader. Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder, though not an IDC member, has also voted with the Republicans. 

As a result of the IDC-Republican alliance, encouraged by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, critical legislation in areas from housing to health care to criminal justice has been blocked. The faction has repeatedly refused to advance bills passed by the Assembly that would have strengthened rent regulations and tenant protections. IDC leader Klein has been “the biggest beneficiary” of real-estate industry campaign contributions to state legislators, according to a December 2016 analysis by ProPublica and The Real Deal. He was “the largest single legislative recipient of Glenwood donations over the years,” according to a June 2016 article by the late Wayne Barrett in the Daily News that examined contributions by billionaire Leonard Litwin and the scores of limited-liability companies under his Glenwood Management umbrella.

The election of Benjamin has triggered an outcry from Democrats across the state for party members in the Senate to vote together and elect a Democratic leader, consistent with the mandate of the voters. The call is backed by plans by the Working Families Party and others to challenge IDC members in primaries in next year’s elections if they do not vote for Democratic leadership.

At the same time, IDC members are facing criminal investigations by the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman related to false payroll records filed for committee assignments they didn’t actually perform, as reported by the New York Times. Legislators’ base salaries are only $79,500, but stipends for committee assignments—known as “lulus”—supplement their pay. IDC members have received tens of thousands of dollars in lulus, as well as a total of $2.2 million in extra staff as a result of their relationship with the Republicans.

Despite a growing Democratic majority among New York voters, the Senate has been under Republican control almost continuously since 1939, due to partisan redistricting and weak campaign-finance laws. The notable exception was a brief period of Democratic control from 2009-2010, when majority leader Malcolm Smith was undermined by corruption and by the defection of disgraced former senators Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate, who gave the Republicans the votes that put them in the majority. 

Espada is currently serving a five-year sentence in federal prison for embezzlement. Monserrate was expelled from the Senate after being convicted of assaulting his girlfriend, and later served 21 months in prison for corruption. Smith—who joined the IDC in December 2012, after Democrats regained a technical majority in the Senate—is serving a seven-year sentence for bribery.

The so-called Independent Democratic Conference was established in 2011 by Jeffrey Klein along with Diane Savino (Staten Island-Brooklyn), David Valesky (Syracuse) and David Carlucci (Rockland). It has allied to maintain Republican leadership ever since. Four current senators elected as Democrats have also joined it: Tony Avella (Queens), Jose Peralta (Queens), Jesse Hamilton (Brooklyn), and Marisol Alcantara (Northern Manhattan), who was elected in 2014 after winning a three-way primary against Robert Jackson and Micah Lasher. Public Advocate Letitia James, who backed Alcantara in that race, has announced she will not endorse her again in 2018 if she does not support a Democratic majority. Jackson is already actively running against Alcantara. Lasher has endorsed him, explaining that “nothing is more important” than having Democratic control of the Senate.

Even before Benjamin’s expected victory gave elected Democrats a 32-31 numerical majority, the Working Families Party issued a call for all elected Democrats to unite to control the Senate around an anti-Trump “resistance agenda.” That would make New York one of only seven states with Democratic control of both the governorship and legislature. The call was joined by Citizen Action of NY, VOCAL, and activists including actress Cynthia Nixon, and was soon followed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, the entire state congressional delegation, and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Even Simcha Felder, who has said he will caucus with whichever party controls the majority, called on the IDC to return to the Democratic fold.

Conspicuously absent from the call for Democratic unity is the nominal head of the state party, Gov. Cuomo, who has helped to maintain Republican control of the Senate and is a close ally of Klein. Cuomo has accepted millions of dollars in real-estate contributions, both to his own campaign and to the state Democratic party, and has pointedly failed to use these resources to elect Democratic state senators. Asked in early May whether he favored an all-Democratic state government, Cuomo referred to the 2009-2010 Malcolm Smith period, saying, “We’ve had a unified Democratic government in Albany… It wasn’t extraordinarily successful. So I work with the Assembly and Senate that I’ve been given.”

The IDC claims that its ability to work with Republicans has won goals such as an increased minimum wage, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and a state medical-marijuana-extract program—all measures that a straight Democratic majority would have passed. It responded to the pressure to unify with Democrats with a call of its own, to unite around a seven-point “progressive agenda,” also measures Democrats already support. 

“Not surprisingly, there are no tenant protection bills in their package,” noted Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC.

The IDC, funded by the real-estate industry’s huge profits and enabled by Gov. Cuomo, is an assault on the basic principle of democracy: majority rule. It’s of a piece with all the other tactics employed by powerful interests to frustrate the will of the people, from voter suppression to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to gerrymandered districts. 

In the age of Trump, New York State deserves better.