On the one-year anniversary of their defection from the Senate Democratic minority, the four senators of the Independent Democratic Conference—Jeff Klein, David Valesky, David Carlucci and Diane Savino—sat down to discuss their eventful first year together. It included helping pass nearly 40 bills, releasing a sheaf of reports on reforming government and incurring the frequent wrath of their 26 former colleagues.
The IDC discussed whether they would ever vote to return Minority Leader John Sampson to control of the Senate, the outing of the romance between Klein and Savino and whether Carlucci, the Senate’s youngest member, is the next Franklin D. Roosevelt. What follows is an edited transcript.
City & State: What’s the difference between trying to form and push a legislative agenda among a four-person caucus as opposed to a 32-person caucus?
Jeff Klein: It’s a legislative agenda we all agree upon, and I think that wasn’t always the case in the previous majority.
Diane Savino: And I think that’s important, because one thing we learned from having been in the majority in a very—what’s the word? Dysfunctional majority? A fancy word for it?—is that you’re not supposed to put forward legislation that’s harmful to your colleagues. And that’s a mistake I think was made over and over and over again by the Democratic majority leader. You know, putting forward things that put Dave Valesky and his members in upstate New York, like Darrel Aubertine and Bill Stachowski, in a box.
You’re not supposed to do that; you’re supposed to build support for stuff. And part of building support is educating not just your colleagues, but educating voters. It’s not easy to move an agenda that can be very narrowly defined to a specific part of the state when other parts of the state feel it’s inherently harmful.
JK: And also, it was always that rule of 32. It had to be 32 Democrats. I wish I had a dollar for every time John Sampson told me, “We don’t have 32 votes.” Because somebody was opposed to something that was good for all of us but that person just wasn’t in favor of it. When you’re doing something as important as passing meaningful legislation, you need to do it in a bipartisan fashion. Especially when you have a Senate that, I believe, is going to be two, three seats [apart] over the next 10 years.
C&S: What’s the difference working with the Republicans?
David Valesky: It’s clear that they see the value of working in a bipartisan fashion. Senator Skelos talks about bipartisanship, as the Republican leader of the Senate, just as much as Governor Cuomo does as the Democratic leader of the state.
C&S: Are members of the Senate Democratic conference still willing to work with you on bills?
JK: We have examples of working with Eric Adams on cyber-bullying, working with Adriano Espaillat on foreclosure issues.
DS: For members who really want to work on legislation, they’re able to put aside the creation of the IDC and work on bills that matter to them. If you don’t care about this, you can just retreat to the corner and work on being the vocal minority that points fingers.
C&S: There have been a lot of negative articles coming out about Senator Klein’s law practice. Is there any resentment that those may be coming from Democratic colleagues?
JK: You know, what we did was a risk. I will say, and this is no knock to the media in any way, that the constant sniping and using me as a target somehow empowers me. I think it does send a message sometimes—there are a lot of people in the media that I respect immensely who will ask the question: “Why didn’t people do this before? Why now?” This is the reason, because you have to face the wrath of a small number of Democrats who aren’t serious about governing, they’re only serious about politics, they only look at their own political interests, their own political gains. And they’re the ones who are going to prevent the people like us from being independent.
DS: They put my personal life in the newspaper! That’s the kind of silly things they do. They’re incapable of self-reflection. They’re incapable of looking back at the mistakes they made and saying, “What can we do better, so that people will trust us again and people will invest in us? And maybe, then, they might even believe in us again.” But they’re not willing to do that. Instead, they want to attack us every day. We’re not interested. I’m not in the schoolyard anymore.
C&S: Does Andrew Cuomo care that Democrats are divided in the Senate?
DS: It doesn’t matter whether it’s Democrats or Republicans. Andrew Cuomo wants stable, serious members of the Senate.
JK: He ended the practice, which always bothered me, of using issues as wedge issues. Politicizing them. Like, if you elect a Democratic majority in the state Senate, you’ll get gay marriage. Well, that didn’t happen. Or independent redistricting. Or, if you get Republicans in charge, we’ll do a property tax cap. I mean, these are issues that are important. And he put an end to that.
C&S: If Democrats pick up seats this year—and you’re in a position to determine which party holds the majority—could you ever vote for Sampson?
JK: The IDC is alive and well. We’re having our first PAC fundraiser for our first anniversary. I don’t think there’s any secret that we’d like to expand the IDC. As a Democrat, we want to elect Democrats; Republicans want to elect Republicans. But during that time period when it’s time to govern, you need to govern in a bipartisan fashion. Putting politics into it each and every issue hurts our ability to govern effectively.
C&S: But does that mean you don’t see the schism healing anytime soon?
JK: As far as governing, no, I think it’s been going very well.
C&S: Could you have the same influence within a Democratic majority?
DS: Not right now, within the current system, no. The leadership of [the Democratic] Senate right now isn’t interested in leading, they’re interested in being in leadership. That’s a very big distinction.
No one’s asking us to support them, number one. And number two, no one’s giving us a reason to support them. So let’s assume the campaign will come, and the elections are over and by some miracle they’ve won two seats. Well, we’re still voters. You tell us why we should support one of those people. When that day comes, we’ll consider it.
JK: I think it’s important to make a compelling argument about why they should be returned to power—which I think they haven’t done. I think, if anything, the IDC is raising the Democratic agenda and moving the Democratic agenda in a bipartisan fashion.
C&S: What did you make of recent reports that you may get Republican challengers after all?
David Carlucci: I think this kind of discussion is one of the major problems and a reason for the gridlock. Before I even sat down in the chamber, people were all up in arms about all sorts of issues and making it so hyper-partisan for the next election. That’s one of the frustrations and concerns I had in going to the Senate, that I was going to just join this dysfunctional body and bang my head against the wall and not get anything done. I think we’ve shown a way around that.
C&S: Have any of your constituents expressed concern about the IDC?
DS: A couple of party officials weren’t sure at first. They said, “What does this mean? Are you becoming a Republican?” And I explained it to them. And they were like, “Yeah, the [Democrats] were a bunch of idiots anyway.” Usually, many of them said, “If you guys had done this a year ago, you would still be in the majority.”
C&S: Is there an overarching governmental philosophy for the IDC?
DC: A lot of the issues shouldn’t be Democratic or Republican, and it just lines up that way. For me: MTA payroll tax, killing us. Property taxes, killing us.
DV: My political mentor I worked for many years, Mike Bragman, his campaign slogan every two years was very simple and very effective: “Work. Results.” “Work. Results.” That’s the way I was trained in this business. You work hard, you get results for it.
DS: You know my ideology—I’m like a Communist compared to these guys. What I always say is I’m an FDR Democrat. I believe he’s the most successful Democrat in modern times.
DC: And if you read about him in the [New York] Senate, there’s a lot of similarities. He didn’t support the majority leader or the minority leader when he was in the Senate.
DV: [To Carlucci] And I believe [FDR] is the only state senator that was younger than you.
JK: [To Carlucci] So next year, you’re going to be Assistant Secretary to the Navy. [Laughter.]
DS: And then governor and president.
DC: But hopefully no polio.
DS: And no Eleanor. Brilliant woman, but not very attractive.
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, David Carlucci, David Valesky, Dean Skelos, Diane Savino, eric adams, FDR, Franklin D. Roosevelt, IDC, Independent Democratic Conference, Jeff Klein, John Sampson, Senate Democrats
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