New York State

IDC? NBD. Savino and Carlucci’s solid session

Despite their past allegiance to the Independent Democratic Conference, its two former members still in the state Senate – Diane Savino and David Carlucci – aren’t just surviving in the new Democratic-dominated era; they’re thriving.

Former IDC member David Carlucci passed 61 bills, the most in the Senate.

Former IDC member David Carlucci passed 61 bills, the most in the Senate. Mike Groll

Despite their past allegiance, neither of the Independent Democratic Conference’s two former members who are still in the state Senate – Diane Savino and David Carlucci – were badly marginalized under the new state Senate Democratic majority. Past bitter rivalries between the IDC, which had a power-sharing agreement with Republicans until April 2018, and the mainline Democratic conference did not stop Savino and Carlucci from legislating. By all appearances, the 39 Democrats in the conference worked together like a well-oiled machine, despite six of the new members having toppled former IDC members in primaries. Publicly, the dysfunction of years past seemed to have become nothing more than a memory and members were happy to forgive past transgressions. (Though state Sen. Simcha Felder, who had conferenced with Republicans in the past, did not rejoin the Democrats until July, after the session ended.)

Carlucci sponsored 233 bills in 2019, 61 of which passed in the state Senate – the second most out of anyone in the chamber (behind only state Sen. Timothy Kennedy’s 65). Eight so far have become law. An additional 42 have passed both chambers and most of those are likely to become law once they are sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature. “It’s been the most productive session that I’ve had in my time in the Senate,” Carlucci told City & State. 2019 marked his ninth year serving in the state Senate and his first full session as a member of the Democratic conference. (Ironically, what enabled such productivity on Carlucci’s part was the very thing the IDC had sometimes prevented: Democratic control of the chamber.) Among the eight that have become law are two bills that he introduced as part of a package of voting reforms that were passed at the beginning of the session. Carlucci’s laws allowed 16- and 17 year-olds to preregister to vote and permitted voters who move within the state to automatically register at their new address.

State senators who passed a comparable number of bills in the upper chamber to Carlucci include Brad Hoylman, who passed 53, Gustavo Rivera, who passed 48, and Todd Kaminsky, who passed 44. Hoylman, a leading progressive, has widely been regarded as one of the session’s biggest winners, since he sponsored a number of high-profile bills that passed. Kaminsky held power as the unofficial dean of the crucial Long Island Democrats and Rivera chaired the powerful Health Committee and has long been one of the Senate’s more outspoken members.

Savino had an active year as well, getting 33 bills passed in her chamber, 17 of which passed both chambers, which is in line with many others in the conference. One longtime Albany observer said that while Savino was frustrated with new progressives and some of the first-term lawmakers who unseated her former IDC colleagues, she kept her head down and got her work done. Savino has a reputation of being outspoken and opinionated, including with other Democrats in the past. When former state Sen. José Peralta, another ex-IDC member, died in 2018 after losing his primary to state Sen. Jessica Ramos, Savino angrily excoriated his critics who were now offering kind words about his legacy. “He risked it all for his district, and paid the price on primary day. I am sure all those who stood by and let him be vilified for simply wanting to be more effective in this totally fucked up winner-take-all game of politics will be posting tributes today,” Savino said as part of a series of tweets. Although she did not refer to any person directly, her words were read as a dig against Ramos and other anti-IDC candidates. But once the session began, she did not publicly speak out, directly or indirectly, against any of her colleagues.

Savino was not available for an interview and a spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

At the beginning of the session, some speculated that state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins had used committee assignments as a way to punish Carlucci and Savino for their past transgressions. Carlucci received the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee, which he chaired during his IDC days. Progressive activists have made the argument that a senator with his seniority – he has been in office since 2011 – would have likely received a more powerful committee. Some freshmen who defeated former IDC members got relatively plumb assignments: Sen. Zellnor Myrie got the Elections Committee and Alessandra Biaggi got the Ethics and Internal Governance Committee. Carlucci told City & State he wanted the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Committee, and Stewart-Cousins was gracious enough to give it to him.

Savino’s assignment as chairwoman of the Internet and Technology Subcommittee, which was later elevated to a full committee, came across as more of a snub. Many expected Savino to receive the powerful Labor Committee because she had chaired it in the past and has strong ties to labor. Instead, Ramos became the chairwoman of the Labor Committee. Savino was also passed over for the Codes and Finance committees, both of which she served on as vice chair during the previous session under the old IDC and GOP power-sharing arrangement.

Gary Ginsburg, a spokesman for the Senate majority, said that in a state with a growing number of tech jobs and an environment where technology plays an increasingly important role in everyday life, the newly formed committee can hardly be considered unimportant. “It’s going to be absolutely critical in the next couple of years,” Ginsburg said. “When we start talking about how do we regulate automated cars on the road, when we start talking about how do we have a smart grid infrastructure investment? That’s going to be a major issue.” State Sen. James Sanders Jr., a self-described progressive with no love for the former IDC, agreed that Savino’s committee is a vitally important one. “By no means can you call this a punishment,” Sanders said. “You can argue that perhaps she may have felt more comfortable elsewhere, but she applied herself to it.” For her part, Savino has taken her committee post in stride and maintains that she is satisfied with the position. She advanced a total of four bills out of the newly formed committee, two of which have been signed into law, including one that creates a commission to study artificial technology and robotics in the state, jokingly called the Skynet Commission after the “Terminator” movies.

Carlucci and Savino could have fared far worse when committee memberships were assigned. A coalition of progressive activists wrote a letter to Stewart-Cousins demanding that the pair not be given any committee assignment, let alone a chairmanship. The majority leader could have easily taken such measures – she did so with Felder, who was not even allowed to rejoin the conference and was not assigned to any committee.

Sources both inside and outside the state Senate pointed to Stewart-Cousins’ control over the conference and her measured leadership style as an important factor in the smooth integration of the two former IDC members. “The awkward part, if there were any, was last year, not this (year),” Hoylman told City & State. “I think a lot of us took our lead from Andrea Stewart-Cousins and she normalized the situation.” Hoylman also said that with Democrats in the majority, personal, petty grudges that may have simmered during their time in the minority fell by the wayside in favor of getting work done. “Our mission is bigger than any individual in the Senate.”

The longtime Albany observer opined that it was possible that members of the conference did not want to cause any major issues during the first year of Stewart-Cousins’ historic leadership role as the first black woman to serve as state Senate majority leader, despite myriad issues that could have split the conference, including IDC reunification. Remarkably, even with the IDC, the backlash against Amazon and several controversial bills like a narrowly failed effort at recreational marijuana legalization, the conference never visibly fractured. In fact, there were only a handful of bills on which the Democrats did not vote as a bloc.

There was some disagreement behind the scenes. Multiple sources in Albany told City & State that Savino was not particularly happy with how far left the conference was beginning to move. Several freshmen declined to be interviewed for this story, but state Sen. Julia Salazar, a left-wing insurgent who defeated a mainstream Democrat in last year’s primary, told City & State that she only had positive interactions with both Savino and Carlucci, calling them “hardworking legislators.” Evan Stavisky, a partner at Democratic consulting and lobbying firm The Parkside Group, which works with the mainline Democratic conference, said that in a conference that size, members were certain to have differences in opinion. “You put three New Yorkers in a room, you’ll get five opinions,” Stavisky told City & State. “But the reality, and the critical thing, is that it didn’t spill into anything else.” Sanders added that, at first, there was still some lingering animosity toward Carlucci and Savino, but it quickly dissipated. “I heard (Savino), several times, offer help to anyone who sought it, whether it be labor or anything else,” Sanders said.

Although Carlucci’s and Savino’s former allegiance to the IDC now seems to be water under the bridge for the party’s leaders and sitting senators, that offers no protection against primary challenges from the Democrats’ ascendant liberal grassroots. Ravi Gupta, co-founder of the progressive group Arena that recruits, trains and supports candidates, said in a statement to City & State that the pair “should not be in office” and that it “remains a priority for us to defeat or replace them.”

Other progressive activists also have not forgiven the senators. Gus Christensen, chief strategist for No IDC NY, told City & State that his and other progressive groups have been actively looking for candidates to primary Carlucci and Savino in 2020. “There’s no redemption for what they’ve done,” Christensen said. “They haven’t even sought redemption; they haven’t even apologized.”

That much, at least, is true. An apology was not part of the deal to rejoin the Democratic conference. Asked if he ever considered leaving the IDC, Carlucci did not express remorse for his decision to join the conference when he took office in 2011, calling it “the best way forward” at the time, given the political atmosphere, to pass legislation that would benefit his district in the Lower Hudson Valley. He added that when the IDC dissolved last year, it had reached a point where it was no longer productive, implying that until then, it had been. 

In the past, members of the Democratic conference promised to support primaries against IDC members if they refused to rejoin the conference. The ultimatum was used prior to the conference’s dissolution in 2018, and state Sen. Michael Gianaris, chairman of the state Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, had already begun recruiting candidates to unseat those members before a deal was struck.

This time around, Gianaris is prioritizing gaining a supermajority in his chamber, which would enable the state Legislature to override vetoes from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Gianaris declined to comment for this story, but he previously told City & State that the New York State Democratic Senate Campaign Committee will target Republicans it considers vulnerable, such as Sen. Robert Antonacci, whose district is near Syracuse, and Sen. Sue Serino in the Hudson Valley.

Rumors have been swirling in Albany that Savino, who has been in office since 2005, may not seek reelection in 2020, or that she could be considering a run for Staten Island borough president, since the seat will be open in 2021.

Although leadership and rank-and-file members alike appear to have buried the hatchet, that does not mean senators will soon forget the IDC years. Sanders said they will serve as a warning both for Democrats and those that may try to play political games in the future. “This is a cautionary tale that Democrats need to tell to their children of a political Icarus whom outside forces gave wings to fly away,” Sanders said. “And for a while, the flying was good, but then there’s hell to pay.”

According to Greek legend, Icarus drowned at sea after his wings melted because he flew too close to the sun. Unlike their colleagues, Savino and Carlucci knew how to swim. Right now, having been accepted back into the Democratic conference but facing continued resistance from activists, they may still be treading water. Dry land awaits over the 2020 election horizon, if they can once again beat back primary challenges.