With state Senate Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein facing allegations of sexual misconduct, Albany is once again facing the question of how to respond when a conference leader is accused of bad behavior. If Klein chooses to step down, there is a system in place that will allow for his successor to be chosen.
This has become almost routine in the state Legislature: In early 2015, state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos was arrested on charges of extortion, fraud and bribery, barely four months after former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver resigned over federal charges that he had taken millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.
Unlike Skelos and Silver, Klein has not been arrested, charged or indicted for any crime. He denied the allegation, has said he will not resign, and has the backing of his conference.
“Senator Klein has stated unequivocally that the incident did not occur, he is not stepping down and that he welcomes, and is fully cooperating with, an investigation," said Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for the IDC, referring to a probe by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which Klein had requested.
Of course, politicians who have proclaimed their innocence and rejected initial calls to resign have later stepped down under changed circumstances like more accusers coming forward. In that situation, the process would be very similar to that of the minority state Senate Democrats, said a source close to the IDC, who spoke on background in order to discuss a hypothetical situation in which the conference meets and selects its new leader. All seven other members of the IDC currently remain committed to having Klein as their leader, as evidenced by Klein’s joint conference call with state Sen. Diane Savino rebutting the allegation, and a statement by its six other members standing by him. A Democratic source confirmed that generally when there is a change in leadership for any party in Albany, a conference meets as a matter of form and a new leader emerges.
State Sen. David Valesky is currently the deputy IDC leader for legislative operations, but he would not necessarily be the successor should Klein step down, unless he was chosen by the conference.
This process is essentially what occurred in the Skelos and Silver cases, when the Republican conference in the state Senate and the Democratic conference in the Assembly played major roles in determining the resignations of their respective leaders and the appointments of their successors.
In 2015, Skelos’ arrest led to a week of upheaval, as the majority leader was urged to step down while potential replacements jockeyed to succeed him. Of the two major candidates, state Sens. John Flanagan and John DeFrancisco, Skelos preferred Flanagan. In a closed-door meeting of the Republican conference, it was agreed that Skelos would resign. Flanagan was formally elected as temporary president of the Senate and Republican majority leader that afternoon.
Four months earlier, on Jan. 22, 2015, Silver was arrested on corruption charges. The Democratic conference held meetings the following week and concluded that it had lost confidence in his leadership. A plan was set in motion for Silver to resign and be replaced in a vote for the new speaker on Feb. 10. After resigning on Jan. 30, Silver was replaced temporarily by an interim speaker, Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, and the race to become the next speaker accelerated. Assembly Democrats had coalesced around Assemblyman Carl Heastie and he was elected speaker on Feb. 3.