Last week’s surprise announcement that the state Senate Democrats would reunite and the Independent Democratic Conference would dissolve left many wondering: Why now?
Of course, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and state Senate IDC Leader Jeff Klein gave some public reasons, citing Donald Trump’s presidency and the immediate need to unite in order to pass progressive policy measures. It all seemed friendly and celebratory, with an agreement to set aside differences for the greater good. But what was going on behind the scenes? Neither the public nor reporters know exactly what was discussed at Cuomo’s steakhouse meeting where the deal was made.
NY1 statehouse reporter Zack Fink returns for another edition of City & State’s Albany Angle podcast to explore some of the politics behind the deal. He is joined by Spectrum News Capitol correspondent Nick Reisman, who went back to the IDC’s formation to help explain what is happening now. Reisman offered insights into the reunification, Cuomo’s reasonings and what he considers to be a liberal Democratic movement mirroring the Tea Party.
Check out highlights below of the interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity. To listen to the full podcast, click on the link at the top of this article or subscribe to City & State’s podcasts on iTunes.
C&S: In one fell swoop, poof, the IDC was gone just last week. What's your take on what you make of all that and what it means going forward?
NR: To give you some context, pre-IDC – I really started covering Albany full time in 2010. This was the last year of the Paterson administration, this was the last year of the Democratic Senate. It was post Senate coup. So there was a lot of bad blood going on in the state Senate between Democrats, and you can really sense the tension in the state Senate between Democrats who were clearly allied with Jeff Klein, that includes guys like Sen. David Valesky of Syracuse, then-Sen. Craig Johnson of Long Island from western Nassau County. These were all Klein's guys. And once Democrats lost the majority in 2010, Klein clearly had an incentive, perhaps, to get away from what he saw as the dysfunction of the Democratic majority of the state Senate. And that was a sentiment that seemed to carry over with Gov. Cuomo when he took office, where he in essence blessed the IDC-Republican union as it were, where they were very closely aligned, they actually helped Republicans stay in majority for a two-year term, and they kind of remained this key voting bloc of Democratic votes for Republicans to maintain power and to actually get things done in the chamber.
The Democratic majority of 2009 and 2010 really was not ready for prime time, as it were. Virtually everyone from that era who was in charge, from Malcolm Smith to John Sampson to Pedro Espada, one of the coup instigators, are out of the Senate. In fact, they're not even free anymore, they're all in prison on unrelated corruption charges. So the Democratic argument has been for Senate control is that we have new people in power in now, new people in charge. Andrea Stewart-Cousins is going to be the first black woman to lead a legislative majority in the state Senate should we take power, and the Republican Senate, with the IDC as their allies, have really kind of stifled or at least helped to water down key liberal goals, like a $15 minimum wage. They say they've blocked voting reforms – making it easier to vote, early voting, voting online, things like. So it's very interesting to see, we're really approaching kind of a paradigm shift here in Albany, and the state Senate is, as always, at the center of it.
C&S: It does seem to be a new crop of people, but it's also not a totally new crop of people. Some of those personality conflicts go back to the time that you're talking about, and some are wondering, will this reunification be seamless, or are you still going to have a division within – basically two separate conferences under the same name?
NR: Well, you certainly have a lot of infrastructure that needs to get reconciled in some shape or form. I mean, personality clash, certainly you've got one between Jeff Klein and Mike Gianaris, who was Andrea Stewart-Cousins' deputy. Under this arrangement, as far as we know, Klein is going to be Stewart-Cousins' deputy, Gianaris is going to be remaining the chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, that's the fundraising political arm of the Senate Democrats. Klein and Gianaris, despite what they will say publicly, have a personality clash. They do not particularly like each other. So that's going to be something that people are going to be watching for, to see how these two guys are going to be able to get along. Some of the more high-minded rhetoric that you've heard in all of this is from the governor, and he seems to be kind of needling both men when he says this, that now's the time set aside titles and personality clashes and to work together. So we're gonna wait to see what happens there.
And then of course, there's the kind of internal conference dynamics. The IDC has run their private conference meetings a certain way, the mainline Senate Democrats run there conference meetings a certain way, so all of that stuff is going to have to be integrated. It's really not unlike two companies with a separate corporate culture merging together, and there are some growing pains that are going to probably occur.
C&S: To the larger question here, what prompted this? Because I do feel like this happened so suddenly. And this was a meeting that was called by the governor, near his office. The governor clearly is feeling pressure here to make the change.
NR: And clearly, that pressure is coming from Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging him a Democratic primary. This is something that we really haven't seen before, where somebody with celebrity name recognition like Cynthia Nixon, known for her role in "Sex and the City," known for her work as a public education advocate in Albany, is challenging the governor from the left, and using this arrangement in the state Senate as kind of a rallying call for liberals who are dissatisfied with what has been going on in Albany for the last eight years or so. And obviously, if Hillary Clinton were president of the United States, I think it's very unlikely we would be seeing all of this. I don't think we would be seeing the same kind of liberal anger right now and motivation to not just get out to the polls, but also to challenge Democrats who are enabling Republicans in the era of the Trump administration. I think what took a lot of people by surprise is the governor moving to dissolve the IDC. I think the Cynthia Nixon primary challenge, the governor's increasing desire to appeal to liberal Democratic voters ahead of his primary in September, really kind of called the question and forced his hand.
C&S: And we're watching him react in a way, at least that I've never really seen. Is this ghosts from elections past, meaning it's the scare that he got in 2014 from Zephyr Teachout, or is this new? The ground has shifted in a lot of ways. The party has really moved to the left. The question is, does this activist base of the party translate into actual votes? That remains to be seen, but it does seem like Cuomo has had a concern about his left for quite some time.
NR: Polling would suggest that he shouldn't be all that concerned about his left flank. He remains popular with self-identified voters, he remains popular with registered Democratic voters, he remains popular with union households, he remains popular in the suburbs. That's really his base. He's got voters of color who live in the city who support him and will probably vote for him over Cynthia Nixon. That kind of constellation of voters, that should be good enough to win him a Democratic primary in this state. Now, that being said, he does face a totally different political calculus this year than he did in 2014. Liberals were, I think, concerned with idea that he wasn't moving to ban hydrofracking, that he wasn't enthusiastic about a minimum wage increase. All of a sudden, you saw him after Zephyr Teachout challenged him in 2014, he adopted the Howie Hawkins Green Party candidate platform, of the $15 minimum wage and a ban on hydrofracking. But for liberals, it just has not been enough. They're suspicious of him and his motivations, that they want, I think, and I'm not using this in a derogatory sense, but they want a sense of purity out of their politicians now and their elected officials. They want somebody perhaps on the mold of Bill de Blasio, who is more of an aspirational elected official than somebody who likes to get things done, in Andrew Cuomo's terminology.
C&S: One Democrat said to me, in the post-Trump era, every seat is competitive. It really has changed sort of the way we have to look at politics and where the Democratic Party is. To your point about those issues, he moved left on those issues. There were some who criticized the minimum wage as not going far enough. … And there's a brand new crop of issues. We look at something like legalization of marijuana. Nine other states have already moved forward on this. Gov. Cuomo is constantly saying that New York is a “progressive leader.” There are some who see this as nothing less than a very progressive issue.
NR: I think for a politician like Andrew Cuomo, who came of age in the 1980s, really hit some of his first professional success in the 1990s. I think he came of age when you had a moderate brand of Democratic politics that was successful on a Clintonite triangulation strategy of third-way politics where you're going to be socially liberal, fiscally moderate, you're going to try to work with Republicans who are willing to work with you and to get things done. In a broader sense, we're seeing right now with the Democratic Party what we saw with the Republicans back in 2009 and 2010 with the Tea Party and reaction to Barack Obama being elected president, and this sense that Republicans are not conservative enough. They were not ideologically pure enough. And so we should replace all of our moderate Republican elected officials with more hardline conservative officials. And we're seeing that right now with the Democratic Party. We saw a wave in 2010, now the pendulum has swung in the other direction and we may see a wave of liberal Democrats getting elected in 2018, many of whom will not be willing to compromise with the president, or with a moderate Democratic governor like Andrew Cuomo.