Every New York politics insider has been there: talking to a friend or relative about something happening in Albany and struggling to explain why the Democratic state Senate majority is actually the minority. (Usually, this comes up in the context of explaining why a progressive proposal, such as expanding voting rights or abortion rights, though broadly popular in the overwhelmingly Democratic state, cannot pass in the state Legislature.)
And so the inevitable innocent question is asked: “Wait, they’re Democrats but they caucus with the Republicans?” And, usually thereafter, “Why do the Democrats keep nominating them?” Why indeed.
Since the Independent Democratic Conference’s reunification with the rest of their party, state Sen. Simcha Felder is the sole Democrat still aligned with the state Senate GOP. Them has become him. Just before the Democrats won both state Senate races in Tuesday’s special elections, Felder announced that he would stay with the Republicans at least through the end of this legislative session. That gives him plenty of time to hold an auction and sell his affiliation to the highest bidder.
As Felder holds both parties, and by extension the state’s entire population, hostage to his whims, it’s worth asking why the actual majority party is so powerless – or unwilling – to stop him.
Partly this is attributable to the unusual politics of Felder’s district: Whereas IDC members often represented fairly typical Democratic districts, and they were therefore potentially vulnerable to a primary challenge, Felder hails from a heavily Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn district. Many of his constituents are registered as Democrats but vote Republican for president and sometimes other offices. While Felder has fielded a Democratic challenger this year, appeals to liberal ideology or party loyalty are unlikely to dislodge him.
But that doesn’t mean the state Senate Democrats have to allow him in their caucus, much less offer anything to recruit him. Instead, the Democrats should warn Felder that if he does not rejoin before the November elections he will be unwelcome afterwards or that he would be stripped of all seniority and relegated to the lowest rung on the totem pole.
If the Democrats pick up just one state Senate seat in November, they will have the majority without Felder. And they could flip more than just one seat: Eight Republican state senators represent districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Inspired by energetic opposition to President Donald Trump, Democratic fundraising, candidate recruitment, grassroots activism and voter turnout are all on the upswing. Recent elections across the country, including the Democrats’ strong performance in Tuesday’s state legislative special elections in New York, show a “blue wave” building.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo referred to that possibility on Wednesday when he sent an open letter to Felder pleading with him to rejoin his nominal caucus. “The Democratic Conference will not need you in November the way they need you now,” Cuomo warned. “I believe there will be additional Democrats who win and are seated for the next legislature. You have said that you act in the best interest of your constituents. For their benefit, now is the time that matters. I know what you said yesterday, but this morning brings a new reality.”
Even this is more of a carrot than a stick. Cuomo is suggesting that Felder has leverage in reunification negotiations now that he may not have later. Any threat is, at most, in between the lines.
It’s curious that Cuomo – a legendarily shrewd and unforgiving political operator – has not dropped the hammer on Felder.
Cuomo forced the IDC to rejoin the Democrats through nothing but sheer force of will. The deal he brokered contained only two major concessions to the IDC: allowing IDC Leader Jeff Klein to serve as the Democratic caucus’s second-in-command, and, at least implicitly, Cuomo and his party agreed not to back the IDC’s primary challengers.
So why can’t the same be done to Felder? Is Cuomo, so adept at punishing those who cross him, suddenly powerless?
If so, revealing as much to a body that may remain closely divided next year is dangerous. Most state senators understand, and many relentlessly pursue, their self-interest. If both parties reward disloyalty and selfishness, Felder won’t be the only one who defects, or threatens to, to gain personal or political advantage.
Felder is, after all, not the first Democratic state senator to caucus with Republicans to aggrandize his own power. In that distinguished company he joins Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada, Jr. who threw the state Senate into crisis in 2009 by switching teams mid-session. (Monserrate was later expelled from the Senate after being convicted of beating his girlfriend, and Espada was defeated in a primary and convicted of federal corruption charges.)
Since Felder is keeping state Senate Republicans from falling into the abyss, it stands to reason that they grovel before him, most recently by agreeing to exempt yeshivas from the state educational quality regulations that apply to all other schools.
If there were a way to defend Felder’s behavior, it would have to be that he is caucusing with the Republicans because he is relatively conservative and he is working for moderation and consensus. But there is nothing ideological or consensus-driven about Felder’s politics. His demands are relentlessly parochial and frequently divisive. If it isn’t special treatment for yeshivas, then it’s overturning the will of the New York City Council to keep plastic bags free to clog storm drains and pollute waterways, or it’s a dangerous, expensive campaign to place firearm-strapping guards in public schools. In 2013, for example, Felder blocked the installation of speeding cameras in New York City, although he offered to reverse his stance if the city picked up the tab for yeshiva school buses. Felder doesn’t build consensus between the parties, he simply shakes them down.
Felder’s actions, like those of the IDC until the recent reunification, are also especially ignoble when viewed through the lens of racial and gender equality. New York state legislative negotiations have long been dominated by “three men in a room:” the Assembly speaker, the Senate majority leader, and the governor. They always have been men. During the IDC’s reign, Klein, who has been accused of nonconsensually kissing a former staffer, was invited into the inner sanctum.
So this year four men discussed revising the state government’s sexual harassment guidelines without any input from Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, or any other woman. Were Felder to caucus with the party that he supposedly belongs to, Stewart-Cousins would be the first woman in the room.
Meanwhile, the power the GOP exercises over redistricting is one reason that Latinos and Asian-Americans are 19 percent and 8 percent of the state’s population, but they are only 8 percent and 1 percent, respectively, of its state legislators.
In fairness, since the IDC has faced no consequences, Felder is not the only Democratic state senator being rewarded for treachery that any functioning political party would punish. But that’s an argument for letting Felder come back to the fold if he does so immediately, not for letting him make a mockery of his party in perpetuity.
If Felder caucused with the party he belongs to – as approximately 99.99 percent of legislators in the United States do – Democrats would have not only the power to pass liberal measures but to end the gerrymandered district lines that give Republicans any chance of ever winning the Senate at all.
New York politicos may not realize it, but having petty, transactional legislators overturn election results by caucusing with a party they do not actually join because it would impede their reelection prospects is not normal. It isn’t done in other states. It is a product of the particular anti-democratic and dysfunctional nature of New York politics, and a party headed by a politician with Cuomo’s skills should be able to put an end to the debacle. If nothing else, the governor’s presidential ambitions may depend on it.