What to know about Cuomo’s state Senate Democratic unity deal

New York State Senators Jeff Klein and Andrea Stewart Cousins separated by then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
New York State Senators Jeff Klein and Andrea Stewart Cousins separated by then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Judy Sanders / Office of the Governor
New York State Senators Jeff Klein and Andrea Stewart Cousins separated by then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

What to know about Cuomo’s state Senate Democratic unity deal

Simcha Felder, Cynthia Nixon, IDC challengers and past failures are part of the equation.
April 4, 2018

It’s deja vu all over again: the Independent Democratic Conference and the mainline Democratic caucus in the state Senate appear ready to reunite. Like President Jimmy Carter brokering peace in the Middle East, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has shepherded a deal between state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and IDC Leader Jeff Klein. Under this arrangement, Stewart-Cousins would be the leader of the Democratic conference, and Klein her deputy. However, this isn’t the first time the schismatic Democrats have attempted to reunite – nor is it guaranteed to work. Here’s a guide what to know about the potential deal between the two factions.

Cuomo grills the Democrats

NY1’s Zack Fink reported on Tuesday that Cuomo was holding a “Democratic unity” meeting at the Capital Grille in Manhattan, with attendees including Stewart-Cousins, Klein and influential Queens Rep. Joe Crowley.

Cuomo asked Klein and Stewart-Cousins to reconcile immediately, instead of following the previous plan for reunification, which involved rejoining the two caucuses if the Democratic candidates won the special elections for two state Senate seats on April 24. The New York Times reported that the two legislative leaders shook hands after the meeting, with attendees applauding the made-for-TV sight of New York politicians making an ad hoc deal in a steakhouse. Stewart-Cousins reportedly was set to discuss the deal with her caucus on Wednesday morning before giving it her official approval. The three officials - Cuomo, Klein and Stewart-Cousins - appeared at a Wednesday press conference in Manhattan to officially announce the news. 

The Cynthia factor

The timing of this deal is a bit suspect. The state budget was finalized last week under the current power arrangement, in which the eight IDC members have a power-sharing agreement with state Senate Republicans, who are just one seat shy of a 32-seat numerical majority in the 63-member body. Renegade Democratic state Sen. Simcha Felder also separately caucuses with the Republicans. Stewart-Cousins was not included in budget negotiations this year.

Cuomo has also been just fine with the arrangement for years. Politico New York reported in 2014 that he had condoned the creation of the IDC in 2011, and even encouraged its formation. He reportedly privately advised leaders of the new coalition of the IDC and the GOP when the two joined forces in 2012, after Democrats had achieved a numerical majority in the state Senate. Publicly, the governor begged neutrality, saying “they’ll pick their leadership themselves” and “I have no intention of getting involved in either situation,” when the coalition plan was discussed in 2012. In 2014, the Republicans gained an outright numerical majority, and Klein’s IDC continued as a separate conference that worked with the GOP.

Whether or not Cuomo has been actively involved in maintaining the power-sharing agreement between the IDC and the GOP in the state Senate, he has allowed it to continue. One key difference in 2018 is that Cuomo is facing a high-profile primary challenger who has criticized him for being insufficiently progressive – and he is widely seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2020 as well.

This year, Cynthia Nixon, an actress and activist, is challenging Cuomo from his left flank. After primary challenger Zephyr Teachout received nearly a third of the primary votes in 2014, Cuomo may be wary of an opponent with higher name recognition and a credible argument that he has not done enough to support Democrats in the state Senate. Nixon has already needled Cuomo for condoning the IDC. She has also criticized the exclusion of Stewart-Cousins from budget talks, as part of her strategy of persuading black women to vote for her instead of Cuomo. By rushing a plan for unification, Cuomo is showing his commitment to Democratic ideals and key demographics.

On Wednesday morning, Nixon’s campaign sent out an email saying “if you’ve set your own house on fire and watched it burn for eight years, finally turning on a hose doesn’t make you a hero." The email continued by presenting several news articles describing Cuomo’s dealings with the GOP and the IDC as evidence of “Andrew Cuomo the Republican.”

 

The Simcha factor

Assuming that the IDC and the Democrats do actually unite, and assuming that the Democrats win the two seats in the upcoming special elections – two big assumptions – the Democrats may still face hurdles to obtaining a majority. First, there is the parliamentary issue of electing a majority leader. Under current Senate rules, chamber leadership can only be changed by a vote of 38 senators, meaning that even if the IDC and mainline Democrats joined forces, they would not have enough votes to unseat current Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. This could mean that the minority party leads the chamber until at least 2019. (There is also the question of whether Klein would go quietly into that good night and allow Stewart-Cousins to be the sole leader, after so many years of holding power over a conference.)

More critical, however, is the one-man disrupter, Felder. The Brooklyn state senator most recently held up negotiations over the state budget while arguing for more relaxed state education requirements for yeshiva schools. If both Republicans and Democrats have 31 members in their caucuses, Felder – who has previously called for the IDC and the Democrats to reunify but has been noncommittal about his own allegiance – becomes even more influential. Both caucuses would be vying for his vote. Flanagan expressed confidence this week that Felder, and the IDC, would maintain their relationships with the Senate GOP.

Felder told City & State that he would wait until after the April 24 special elections before he would make a decision. “I don’t feel compelled to stay and I don’t feel compelled to leave,” Felder said this afternoon as he searched a store for Kosher for Passover yogurt. “It’s best for my constituents not to do anything until the elections.

“As someone with no allegiance to either party, I’d have to be an idiot to do anything now,” he added. “How do my constituents gain? There’s an election coming up in a few weeks. So, either the Republicans win and I’m 33 and it certainly doesn’t make sense for me to move at that time. Or the Democrats win both seats and we’re back to the horsetrading that we talked about before.”

Primary problems

Cuomo isn’t the only one facing a potentially tricky primary this year. Seven of the eight IDC members are facing primary challenges, with each opponent contending that the IDC is not progressive enough for an overwhelmingly blue state. If reunification occurs immediately, it waters down the primary argument that IDC members need to be unseated in order to regain and retain a Democratic majority in the Senate.

However, the primary challengers aren’t going down without a fight. Like Nixon, their message seems to be “too little, too late.” The seven candidates wrote an open letter to their opponents on Wednesday morning, saying that “we've had seven straight Republican budgets thanks to the IDC's continued support for Republicans,” and blaming them for allowing budget negotiations to occur without Stewart-Cousins this year. The candidates outlined ways in which the budget was insufficiently progressive on issues such as criminal justice reform and gun control, and warned that “we will not allow you to mislead New Yorkers with claims of unity.”

We’ve been here before

As dramatic as the deal and its extenuating circumstances may seem, advocates of Democratic unity may want to wait before breaking out the champagne. In 2014, Klein and Cuomo released a statement saying that the IDC would rejoin the Democrats after that year’s elections. That deal failed to materialize after Republicans won an outright majority that year. Despite his refusal to rejoin the mainline caucus, in 2015, Klein was invited by Cuomo to the negotiating table for the state budget.

Klein also seems to be pleased with the current arrangement. In previously unpublished quotes from an interview with City & State’s Frank G. Runyeon in October of 2017, Klein said that he thought the arrangement between the Republicans and the IDC “just works well.”

“If 32 of us all magically just came together tomorrow, we wouldn’t have enough votes to codify Roe v. Wade, we wouldn’t have enough votes as Democrats to do the contraceptive bill, we wouldn’t have enough for GENDA,” Klein said about the potential for Democrats to reunify. He continued that he didn’t “see us ending the IDC.”

“I like bringing funding to my district,” Klein said. The power-sharing arrangement perhaps gives him more influence in the state Senate than he would have if he were a member of a unified caucus. This political calculation could be a reason for why a potential deal could fail.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post had the incorrect day of the governor's press conference to announce the agreement. The press conference was on Wednesday.  

Grace Segers
is City & State’s digital reporter. She writes daily content on New York City and New York state politics.
Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is a freelance investigative reporter in New York City.
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