New York State

Could a former IDC’er go to D.C. as a Democrat?

State Sen. David Carlucci has thrived, despite having been aligned with the GOP. Now he may replace Rep. Nita Lowey.

State Senator David Carlucci in February 2020.

State Senator David Carlucci in February 2020. NY Senate Media Services

New York’s Democratic primary in 2018 was a bloodbath for the former members of the  Independent Democratic Conference. Six of the eight ex-IDC members lost their primaries to challengers, after their group had drawn the ire of loyal Democrats for maintaining a power-sharing agreement with state Senate Republicans that kept the GOP in power.

While the progressive groups that helped unseat them still reminisce about the great victory, the two remaining former IDC members, state Sens. Diane Savino and David Carlucci, have actually thrived while conferencing with the Democrats, who are now in the majority. Carlucci has even been one of the Senate’s most productive lawmakers since escaping defeat to librarian Julie Goldberg in the 2018 primary, with 54% of the vote to her 46%. 

Now Carlucci is running for Congress in the Lower Hudson Valley. And the man who just two years ago was part of the most hated group in Democratic politics may actually be in a good position to win his party’s nomination – unless one of the motley crew of national security insiders, a bookish public servant, a gay progressive and the son of a pharmaceutical billionaire can stop him.

The Democratic primary is crowded, with eight candidates on the ballot. That’s because New York’s 17th Congressional District, which covers much of New York City’s northern suburbs including all of Rockland County and most of Westchester County, is an open seat for the first time since 1984. While it’s a relatively moderate, affluent district filled with homeowners, the district is safely Democratic. Hillary Clinton, a resident of the district, beat Donald Trump by 20 points there in 2016. So the stakes are highest in the primary.

Currently, the area is represented by Rep. Nita Lowey, the powerful chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, who decided to retire and not seek re-election

Carlucci, Assemblyman David Buchwald and Westchester County Legislator Catherine Parker are hoping to continue their careers as elected officials by filling the opening. Also running are Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant U.S. secretary of defense, and Asha Castleberry, a foreign policy adviser and major in the Army Reserve. Adam Schleifer, a former federal prosecutor and heir to a biotech fortune, and Allison Fine, the former board chairwoman of the NARAL Pro-Choice America Foundation, are both on the ballot. And former litigator Mondaire Jones has been running longer than any of them, since he initially planned to challenge Lowey before she announced her retirement.

The field to replace Lowey, who is Jewish, is diverse. The district is 63% non-Hispanic white and more than 21% of residents are Jewish – making it the fourth-most Jewish district in the country. Buchwald, Carlucci, Fine and Schleifer are Jewish, and Carlucci has worked hard to build ties with the significant Hasidic Jewish population in Rockland County. Half the candidates are women. And 10% of the residents are black, as are both Castleberry and Jones. Jones would be the first openly gay African American member of Congress ever. 

With a month to go until the June 23 election, Carlucci seems to be in a good position to win. He has represented much of the district in the state Senate since 2011, getting re-elected four times. With a Senate district more than twice as large as Buchwald’s Assembly district, and a tenure two years longer, Carlucci is the closest thing to an incumbent in the congressional race. And in this primary, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, experts expect incumbency to be even more of a benefit than usual because insurgent campaigns can’t rely on door-knocking or flyering to get their name out. Sure enough, internal polls from two campaigns shared anonymously with City & State show Carlucci leading the rest of the field – a top spot he’s maintained since the beginning of the race.These partial poll results were shared on the condition of anonymity to avoid revealing campaign strategy. New York’s Fair Campaign Code, which requires campaigns to disclose extensive information about private polls if they’re shared publicly, does not apply to federal races.

The most recent poll, conducted May 13-14, showed that the largest share of voters are still undecided, but Schleifer was close behind Carlucci, within the poll's margin of error of 4.4 percentage points. Jones and Buchwald were behind, tied for third – a significant change from earlier in the year when Schleifer’s name barely registered in poll results, and before he started running TV ads.

But with Carlucci seeming to be in the top spot, opponents are eager to point out his weaknesses. Electing a former member of the IDC “would be a huge scandal,” Jones said in an interview with City & State. “I have spoken to many members of Congress – including members of the New York delegation – who loathe the idea of having to serve alongside an IDC member.” Jones wouldn’t share any specific names, but would say that Carlucci’s former membership in the IDC is a part of his fundraising pitch. And framing Carlucci as a turncoat Democrat is helping.

“Donors who otherwise might not get involved in a Democratic primary, because they prefer to save their money for a general election, are spurred to action when I tell them that there is a real risk that this seat will be represented by someone who cannot even be trusted to caucus with other Democrats in Washington,” Jones said.

Schleifer, too, is questioning Carlucci’s loyalty to the party. “He couldn’t stand up to Republicans in Albany,” Schleifer said. “So how anyone can trust him to go down to D.C. and stand up to Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump would be beyond me.”

It’s all reminiscent of the anti-IDC campaign that ousted six state senators with hashtags of #FakeDemocrats. But to Carlucci, that’s old news. “That issue was really settled in that last primary,” Carlucci told City & State. 

That’s probably wishful thinking, since in 2018 46% of Democratic voters in his own district went for his first-time opponent. Carlucci conceded the issue wasn’t behind him with everybody. “I’m sure there’s people that will still be holding that against me. However, that’s what elections are about,” he said, before enumerating his lengthy “record of results.”

Two years won’t be enough to put the controversy behind him, especially when many Democratic voters felt so offended by the IDC aligning with Republicans, said Jeff Binder, a Westchester County-based political consultant who has worked with both Democrats and Republicans, but isn’t involved in this race. “There’s a lot of long memories in regards to some of the things he did in the name of heightening his own political power.”

In his last Senate primary, Carlucci’s 2,000-vote margin of victory came largely thanks to his strong support in the larger Rockland County side of the Senate district, where Carlucci was raised and still lives. The smaller Westchester portion of his district voted solidly for his opponent, Goldberg, 69%-31%. That could be a serious concern for Carlucci this year, especially when so much more of the congressional district lies on the east side of the Hudson River, in Westchester. Lowey didn’t face a primary in 2018, but in the general election, 60% of the total votes were cast in Westchester, and 40% in Rockland. 

“The center of gravity, electorally, for this congressional district, is not Rockland County,” Binder said. “He’s got geography working against him.”

That could be true too for Jones, who also lives in Rockland County. The other six candidates in the race all live on the other side of the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, in Westchester. Of course, Carlucci sees this crowding as an advantage, thinking that Westchester’s votes may be split up among its many local candidates. One of those Westchesterites, Buchwald, has been consolidating support from the county’s political establishment, including fellow Assembly members Amy Paulin and Gary Pretlow and a long list of town and village Democratic committees. On top of that, he has won support from state Sen. James Skoufis, whose district borders Carlucci’s, and high-profile unions including the New York State Nurses Association and 32BJ SEIU, which represents janitors. 

Buchwald’s endorsement list is in stark contrast to Carlucci’s, which only includes a few smaller unions at this point, and no elected officials. It’s not even enough for an “endorsements” tab on his campaign website. 

But both Davids’ endorsement lists lack the political star power of Jones’ and Farkas’. Just pick your wing of the party: progressive or establishment. Jones, running on Medicare for All, is positioning himself as the most left-leaning candidate, and it has earned him support from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and “Squad” member Rep. Ayanna Pressley, both of Massachusetts, and the Working Families Party. Farkas has been calling on her list of contacts made over her years as a foreign policy advisor in Washington, D.C. She is backed by former Secretary of State John Kerry, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Denis McDonough, former chief of staff to President Barack Obama. 

That’s a lot of out-of-state support for Jones and Farkas, but at this point, all the candidates’ in-state support is somewhat limited. Lowey hasn’t endorsed a successor, and isn’t expected to do so before the primary. And, whether they’re following her lead or they are just nervous to stake a claim in a crowded primary, no other current members of New York’s congressional delegation have endorsed yet either. 

With a median household income of nearly $92,000, the 17th Congressional District is one of the highest-earning in the country. That’s reflected in the candidates’ fundraising. Through the last filing deadline on March 31, the candidates had raised a combined total of more than $5.5 million – good enough for the second-most in the state after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary race. Almost half that total has come in from Schleifer, who brought in more than $2.3 million in less than four months. However, $1.9 million of his total is personal loans and contributions to his campaign. Schleifer is a former assistant U.S. attorney, but he’s also the son of Leonard Schleifer, the billionaire CEO of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. The younger Schleifer, 38, filed a financial disclosure report that suggests he has a net worth of between $31.3 million and $72.8 million, including at least $25 million in Regeneron stock. That money has allowed Schleifer to blanket the airwaves with TV and digital ads, raising his name recognition in the district in a manner reminiscent of billionaire Tom Steyer’s presidential campaign. Schleifer’s big money has made him an easy target for his opponents – Jones called him “ a dangerous candidate” for trying to win with his “purchasing power” – but he’s quick to remind you that money alone doesn’t win elections. For every Mayor Michael Bloomberg, there are a lot of not-mayor John Catsimatidises. Schleifer also noted that his private fundraising is keeping pace with his rivals – which is true, to a point. Schleifer has raised more than $400,000 from other people, which is less than Farkas’ $925,000, Jones $831,000 and Buchwald’s $634,000. But it is significantly more than Carlucci’s $277,000 – a relatively anemic total that puts the senator in sixth place in the fundraising game. 

It may not be a lot, Carlucci explained, but his money is coming from local voters. “Real people,” he said, “that can actually participate in the election.” 

Sure enough, data from the campaign finance watchdog website Open Secrets shows that Carlucci is the only candidate in the race to have more than half of his reported contributions come from within the district. In fact, he has raised the most money overall from district residents, despite his relatively low total contributions.

That local focus helped Carlucci save his seat in 2018. In a race that got statewide and even national attention, he knew he only had to win voters in his district. Now he’ll find out if the same strategy can take him to Washington. 

Correction: David Carlucci is Jewish; an earlier version of this story implied otherwise.