In New York Democrats’ Civil War, Democrats Lose

In New York Democrats’ Civil War, Democrats Lose

In New York Democrats’ Civil War, Democrats Lose
June 2, 2014

The New York Democrats are desperate to regain majority rule of the state Senate, so they are putting massive electoral resources into campaigns against… other Democrats. 

The Senate Dems and the Queens Democratic Party are prepared to pour upwards of a million dollars into former Comptroller John Liu’s primary challenge to Sen. Tony Avella. Avella, who joined the Independent Democratic Conference in February, has been branded a “traitor” by the state Democratic establishment, and has been targeted for removal.

It may seem odd for the Dems to go after the liberal Avella, whose high ethical standards have embarrassed his venally inclined colleagues throughout the years.  When he was a New York City councilman, Avella refused a city parking permit, and would have to arrive at functions early so he could circle the block to find a spot like his fellow citizens.

It is even odder that the Dems are getting behind John Liu, who owes the Department of Sanitation more than $500,000 for posting campaign signs illegally in his 2009 election, and remains under a cloud since his campaign treasurer went to prison. Liu’s fourth-place mayoral run was denied matching funds by the Campaign Finance Board because of suspicions regarding his campaign’s “integrity.”  But now the tarnished one-term Comptroller is the Democratic hope to remove the popular Avella.

The Dems are set on revenge because the IDC, run by Sen. Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx, has split itself off and formed a governing coalition with the Senate Republicans.  The Democratic Party wrested majority control in 2008 for the first time in decades, and promptly turned the Senate into an all-out rush for spoils, doling out prize perks such as parking spots and high-paid staff positions practically before being sworn in. The Dems made such a hash of their leadership that the Senate was soon thrown into total disarray, with defections and scandals resulting in paralysis, and the openly corrupt Pedro Espada ruling as majority leader.

The Senate’s Black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican and Asian Caucus also stated, according to high-placed Albany sources, that it would block the election of any non-minority to leadership. Thus, prodigious fundraisers and regional powerbrokers like Klein were frozen out, while Malcolm Smith and John Sampson, both eventually indicted, were elevated.

Establishment Democrats are furious with the Independent Dems, but their rage, and rhetoric, presents a faulty understanding of representative democracy.  According to Al Sharpton in 2012, the IDC’s refusal to caucus with the Democrats and elect a Democrat as majority leader is antidemocratic: “an attempt to disenfranchise voters … to undermine what people voted for and expect.” 

More recently, Queens Democratic boss Rep. Joe Crowley echoed Sharpton’s rhetoric, saying “clearly the voters of the state more than indicated they wanted to have a Democratic majority in the State Senate;” therefore, according to Crowley, Avella has gone against the will of the people who voted for him.

Sharpton, Crowley, and the rest of the establishment Dems miss the point of our system of government. Politicians are not elected as part of a party “list” and are not sworn to partisan allegiance, as they are under a parliamentary system. Our legislators are voted in directly by the people of their districts, and their obligation is to serve and represent their constituents above all else, ideally free of partisanship. 

So when former councilmember and attorney general Oliver Koppell, who is challenging Klein in the Democratic primary, calls the Independent Dems “traitors,” we have to ask, Traitors to whom? If the IDC members make their voters happy, then who’s complaining? Certainly Klein and company are playing both sides against the middle, but that model of transactional politics is nothing new to Albany, where the proverbial “three men in a room” have run New York for decades. Pretending that the Independent Dems are, as Harlem Senator Bill Perkins would have it, the latest incarnation of Jim Crow, rather than just playing politics as usual, is laying the rhetoric on a bit thick. Just because one side plays savvier doesn't make the other side right. 

Some Albany observers suspect that the Dems are afraid that if Avella goes unpunished he may prove to be an example to other senators who are tired of the establishment’s entrenched and dysfunctional ways, so in order to quash the possibility of more defections and to enforce discipline it is necessary for the party to pour resources into John Liu’s longshot campaign in a district that is not especially favorable to him, based on his electoral history there.

You might think that if the Dems were so eager to regain the majority, they might spend their money fighting vulnerable Republicans. Or even try to reach a compromise with the members of their party who are dissatisfied with how things have been going. Instead, it appears that the establishment Democrats are drawing lines in the sand and preparing for a civil war that, if recent history is a guide, they are likely to lose.


Seth Barron (@NYCCouncilWatch on Twitter) runs City Council Watch, an investigative website focusing on local New York City politics 

Seth Barron