A years-long conflict inside of New York’s Democratic Party came to an end Wednesday — or a pause, depending on whom you ask. The Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of eight state senators who effectively gave Republicans control of half of New York’s legislature, disbanded in a ceremony presided over by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D).
“What unites us is more important than what divides us,” Cuomo said, as the IDC’s leader, Sen. Jeff Klein, agreed to get in line behind the Democrats’ long-suffering Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
Anyone not closely following politics in New York likely missed the drama. Until recently, most New Yorkers were unaware of the IDC, too.
But in the aftermath of the 2016 election, the state’s many restless, growing liberal organizations aimed to make the IDC infamous, defeat its members in primaries, and give New York a Democratic trifecta that could uncork bills from marijuana legalization to the Dream Act to single-payer health care. That same movement powered Cynthia Nixon’s entry into the Democratic primary for governor, turning a sleepy Cuomo coronation into one of the country’s most closely watched races.
“Andrew Cuomo likes to put himself forward as bipartisan, and that’s not the case,” Nixon said last week in an interview with The Washington Post. “He can barely work with Democrats. He seems to be working for the Republicans. There’s a host of issues he says he cares about — campaign finance reform, early voting, the campaign for fiscal equity for schools . . . and it’s unclear whether he really cares, because if he did, he wouldn’t have handed power to the Republicans.”
National Democrats, including the Democratic National Committee’s vice chair, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), had begun to criticize the IDC, and arguments about it spilled over into the party’s debates about rules for the 2020 presidential primary. And the IDC’s opponents do not believe that this saga is over. Here’s what they’re fighting about.
What was the IDC? Founded seven years ago, after Republicans won control of the New York state Senate, it began as a coalition of four Democrats who, in Klein’s words, “could no longer in good conscience support the present Democratic leadership.” They lost nothing by breaking with their minority-status party; they gained clout by working with Republicans. In 2012, Democrats won a majority of state Senate seats, but the IDC stayed in formation, and the odd coalition continued for years, with even more Democrats climbing on board.
Why did it disband? Ask a liberal, and they’ll say it was the pressure that 60-odd progressive groups, eight primary challengers, and Cynthia Nixon put on the governing coalition. Ask Cuomo, and he’ll say it wasn’t that at all — it was about Democrats rediscovering what they stood for. Ask the reporters who exposed how IDC membership was helping some senators pad their salaries, and they’ll tell you the politics became unsustainable.
Are liberals happy about this? No, they’re not, for three reasons. One: They worry that this will sap momentum for their primary challengers. Two: The Senate’s work is largely finished this year, after last week, when the IDC-empowered Republicans signed off on a budget that funded some liberal priorities but left big ones — early voting, the Dream Act — on the cutting-room floor. Three: They do not trust Cuomo or Klein, and this is not the first time they’ve been told that the IDC is packing up.
Who runs the state Senate now? Republicans. Even if Democrats win two special Senate elections this month — they held both seats previously — they will have 32 members to the GOP’s 31. The wrinkle is that one of those Democrats is Sen. Simcha Felder, who decided almost immediately after winning that he could deliver more for his conservative Brooklyn district by sticking with Republicans — a position he reaffirmed Wednesday. And Senate rules require 38 votes to change a leader in mid-session, ensuring that Sen. John J. Flanagan, the Republican leader, will stay in power through the 2018 election.