Democrats who backed NY Senate’s GOP leaders targeted
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — For years, a small group of renegade Democrats in the New York state Senate broke with their party to support Republican control of the chamber. The faction folded earlier this year but some Democrats aren't willing to forgive and forget.
Several challengers have mounted aggressive campaigns to unseat former members of the so-called Independent Democratic Conference in Thursday's primary. The races underscore the complicated political arithmetic in Albany, where Democratic infighting has meant Republicans were able to take control and prevent votes on liberal priorities such as gun control, abortion rights and help for immigrants.
"The Independent Democratic Conference for the past seven years has blocked progressive legislation," said Alessandra Biaggi, an attorney who has worked for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. She's now challenging Bronx Sen. Jeff Klein, the former IDC leader. "The IDC has been a construct that has taken away the Democratic majority."
All eight senators who were members of the IDC face primary challengers this year. That's despite a deal worked out by Gov. Andrew Cuomo this spring that was supposed to end the feud.
Klein, who wielded significant power as the IDC leader, dismisses the attacks from Biaggi and other IDC critics. He said he stands by the Legislature's achievements while he was leading the IDC, including a higher minimum wage and paid family leave
"Primaries are a good thing. I don't shy away from them," said Klein, who became the Senate's No. 2 Democrat when the IDC disbanded. "They voted for me when there was an IDC and I'm sure they'll vote for me now."
While liberals often complained that the IDC was stifling Democratic priorities, the odd Senate schism was little noticed outside Albany until the election of Republican President Donald Trump galvanized progressives and put a target on the backs of former IDC members.
Those challenging former IDC members point to recent upset victories by liberal insurgents — such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez' win over Congressman Joe Crowley — as evidence that voters are eager for change at all levels of government.
"We have a bigot in the White House; we need real progressives in Albany," said Jessica Ramos, a community organizer and former city hall aide challenging Queens Sen. Jose Peralta, a former IDC member.
Former IDC lawmakers say their constituents are more concerned about jobs, health care, education and affordability than Democratic infighting over a defunct Senate faction. They insist they're not the enemy, and that liberals should focus their firepower elsewhere.
"Most people would say 'What's IDC? Is it some sort of company?'" Peralta said. The group, Peralta noted, "Doesn't even exist anymore. We're all part of the mainline Democrats. We should really be focusing our resources on winning back the Senate from Republicans."
Other IDC members are facing challengers in districts on Staten Island and in Brooklyn, Queens, Syracuse, the lower Hudson Valley
Some leading Democrats have tried to stay out of the fray, with limited success.
Protesters yelling "no fake Democrats!" denounced Cuomo in April when he attended a fundraiser for the former IDC lawmakers. Many liberal activists — including his own primary challenger, former "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon — blame Cuomo for exploiting the IDC-Democratic schism for political leverage.
The Senate's Democratic minority leader, Sen. Andrea Stewart Cousins, is backing the former IDC members. But Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, the Democrat's campaign committee chairman, has refused to endorse any of them in the primary.
Democrats are hoping gains in November will give them control the Senate, which remains in Republican hands despite the truce with the IDC. There are currently 31 Republicans and 32 Democrats in the Senate, though one of them, Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder, supports the Republicans. Felder, who was not a member of the IDC, has not committed to returning to the Democratic fold and faces his own primary challenge next week.
Democrats already have a big majority in the state Assembly and hold the offices of governor, comptroller and attorney general. Control of the Senate, too, would ease the way for Democratic bills currently blocked by the GOP, including ones to increase firearm restrictions, allow early voting, authorize state financial aid to students who entered the country illegally as children, and extend the statute of limitations on child molestation to allow victims to sue for decades-old abuse.