Just over a month after the well-publicized steakhouse dinner agreement between the Independent Democratic Conference and the mainline Democrats in the state Senate, some elected officials appeared to contradict the widely reported terms of the truce when New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer and City Council members Costa Constantinides and Jimmy Van Bramer endorsed Jessica Ramos in her race against state Sen. Jose Peralta. Queens County party chairman Rep. Joseph Crowley, who had been involved in hammering out the deal, stayed on Peralta’s side.
Since then, more Democratic players and institutions, including New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Rep. Jerry Nadler, have backed anti-IDC challengers. This has led to media reports, such as David Freedlander’s recent piece in New York magazine, claiming that Democratic officials have reneged on their side of the deal. Johnson, wrote Freedlander, “officially broke the truce.”
This is false, because Johnson was never party to the agreement, according to both sides. He could not break the truce, because he did not commit to any of its terms in the first place – nor did his City Council colleagues, or any other elected officials who were not present, except for those in the state Senate.
“This notion that it was a steakhouse dinner and everybody, like in the movies, shakes hands and swears loyalty to the king, that didn't happen,” Hector Figueroa, the president of SEIU 32BJ, told City & State about the April meeting, which he attended. 32BJ endorsed Jeff Klein’s opponent, Alessandra Biaggi, earlier this summer, while staying neutral in the other state Senate primaries, despite the union’s involvement in the reconciliation between the two sides.
Figueroa was a signatory of a November letter from party leaders to Klein and state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, including Buffalo mayor and chairman of the state Democratic Party Byron Brown, former City Council Speaker and party vice-chair Christine Quinn and Crowley, asking the two sides to reconcile.
Figueroa, though, says he signed the letter as a member of the Democratic National Committee, not as president of 32BJ. Similarly, Figueroa told City & State that the presence of the union’s political director, Alison Hirsh, at the dinner never indicated the union was signing up to support every IDC incumbent.
“We were at that meeting to be supportive of Andrea-Stewart Cousins, and we made no commitment verbally or otherwise to stay away from any race involving IDC candidates,” Figueroa said, explaining that attending the meeting couldn’t supplant the union’s endorsement process in which members are polled on what direction they want the union to take. Biaggi won her endorsement after Klein refused to sit down the union, according to Figueroa, and the union president said that over 90 percent of the district’s 6,000 members are on board with the decision.
But Figueroa’s explanation that he is a man of many hats didn’t fly with state Sen. Diane Savino, a former member of the breakaway conference.
“So when he speaks to you, it’s as the president of Local 32BJ,” Savino told City & State. “When he signs a letter along with the other chairs of the state Democratic Party, of which he's one, then he’s a private citizen. … Disingenuous doesn't begin to describe what he's doing.”
Savino said, however, that political figures who weren’t present at the meeting and have endorsed anti-IDC candidates, such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Johnson, Nadler and members of the Assembly, were not violating the truce because it was supposed to be between members of the state Senate only.
Assemblyman Walter Mosley said the truce did not amount to a broader state party edict that no one could assist challenges to former IDC members. “I wasn't a part of the truce,” Mosley told City & State after a July 12th campaign event where he and three more members of the Assembly – Diana Richardson, Jo Anne Simon and Robert Carroll – endorsed Zellnor Myrie, who is running in Brooklyn against for IDC member state Sen. Jesse Hamilton. “Nobody came to me as a member of the Assembly, I read about it just like anybody else. It was never an agreement hashed out amongst legislators across the board.”
Jeffries also said that while the truce was brokered by powerful members of the party, elected officials weren’t beholden to them. “It was my understanding that the truce was negotiated by a lot of individuals who I respect, including the governor and Joe Crowley, but there are 435 members of Congress, which means you have 435 independent contractors accountable only to the districts that we represent,” Jeffries told City & State after endorsing Myrie this month.
By that standard, the ceasefire is holding.
Some IDC members say they aren’t concerned about the prominent politicians backing challengers, and they downplay the endorsements’ significance. Klein spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio dismissed Johnson’s and Stringer’s support for Biaggi as angling for a promotion. “These two wannabe candidates for mayor, who represent the Manhattan elite, are indulging their ambitions in communities and races they know nothing about,” she wrote to City & State in a statement.
If Cuomo expected Assembly members to stay out of IDC races, he hasn’t conveyed that to them. So it’s safe to assume that no one who has endorsed an anti-IDC candidate fears punishment. Some who have sided against former IDC members say they wouldn’t let such a demand, even from a powerful official such as Cuomo, affect their decision anyway. “There is nothing about me that says I am afraid of anybody about anything anywhere,” Assemblywoman Diana Richardson told City & State when asked if she thought her Myrie endorsement could cause her political harm. “There's only one person that is the leader of my life, and that's the man above.”
Even if the elected officials’ endorsements of anti-IDC candidates are not violating the reunification terms, a few actual parties to the agreement are starting to walk away from it – but none of them are officeholders. While Dennis Trainor, president of the Communications Workers of America, District 1, was at the unity meeting in April, according to 32BJ spokesperson Eugenio Villasante, the CWA also very recently backed a number of challengers to the former IDC members, despite Trainor’s signature on a May letter from labor leaders asking both sides to stick to the truce. CWA didn’t respond to a multiple requests for comment when asked if the endorsements violated their own previous commitment.
Democratic state senators are also capable of following the terms of the deal, by not endorsing IDC opponents, while still making their feelings towards the turncoats apparent. When asked about the status of the truce while he was at an event in July, longtime IDC-foe state Senate Democratic Conference Chairman Michael Gianaris told City & State, “I know I'm not supporting any of the former IDC members.”