ALBANY — Anti-establishment Democrats declared victory Thursday after managing to knock off six of the eight members of the former Independent Democratic Conference, but long-standing political realities in Albany could undermine the night’s significance when it comes to legislating.
While the six breakaway state senators lost their primaries, they did so in Democratic districts. The fundamental challenge that has bedeviled Democrats for decades in this blue state remains unchanged: Democrats — through gerrymandering, GOP legal cunning and an eccentric Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with Republicans — have continued to fall shy of a majority even as the state has grown more Democratic.
In the event Democrats do gain control of the Senate in November, party loyalists hope to see them move on issues that their Republican counterparts have proven reluctant to — more tenant protections, subway funding, speed camera expansion and marijuana legalization, to name a few.
But the state’s most powerful Democrat, despite declaring himself a “progressive,” seemed less than enthused with the prospect of flipping the upper house Friday.
“Last night was essentially meaningless from an ultimate consequence point of view, because the Democrats are still not in the majority,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a triumphalist press conference Friday morning. “This was all rearranging deck chairs, but we’re not in the majority. … And Simcha Felder won again, which means nothing changed. The personalities changed, but nothing changed.”
It was not the rallying cry that liberal Democrats would have liked, but Cuomo was elucidating a simple math problem. It doesn’t matter how liberal the left-most flank of the party is if they can’t hit the magical 32-vote threshold and retake control of the chamber.
For progressives, the IDC — particularly after the election of President Donald Trump — became a bogeyman for temporarily handing control of the Senate to Republicans. The stated policy platforms of both former IDC members and their successful challengers largely overlapped on progressive ideals, but the IDC members entered remunerative power-sharing arrangements with ideologically dissimilar Republicans that struck some fellow Democrats as craven.
Switching out the six IDC senators, and Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan (D-Brooklyn), with insurgent Democrats may be emotionally satisfying, but on a practical level it will continue to mean little if Republicans retain control of the chamber this November. The Democrats defeated by other Democrats were in districts unlikely to flip, regardless of who was on the ballot.
And Felder, who represents a heavily Orthodox Jewish district that has little party fealty, could continue to vote with Republicans and give them the 32nd vote needed to control the chamber unless Democrats pick up a handful of new seats.
Yet the former IDC members’ losses will undoubtedly have an effect if Democrats take control of the chamber.
“A decade in the political wilderness will mean that the newly empowered majority will want to have a strong voice in setting the state’s priorities,” said Neal Kwatra, a prominent Democratic operative. “While there is no shortage of issues to tackle, a focus on a robust voting reform agenda to empower the millions of citizens in New York who don’t vote every election cycle would be a powerful opening salvo. Automatic voter registration, no-fault absentee, vote-by-mail and early vote are arguably as core to the party’s priorities as ‘Medicare for All.'”
Part of most recent power-sharing arrangement between the breakaway conference and GOP gave IDC members the opportunities to chair or co-chair committees, and the stipends that came with them. Had they not lost, those senators likely would have had some leverage to recoup some of these positions — or lay claim to even bigger roles on things like the powerful Finance Committee. But with just Sens. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) and David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) surviving primary night, it is unclear what their conference mates will afford them.
Klein also displaced state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) as the deputy Democratic leader when the IDC dissolved earlier this year. Gianaris would likely reclaim the No. 2 role and hold sway in the conference’s direction.
Carlucci had chaired the Senate’s Consumer Protection committee, which he was stripped of in the wake of the aborted unity deal. And Savino, one of the IDC’s co-founders, helped craft New York’s medical marijuana legislation, and featured prominently during the annual, GOP-led budget hearings.
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx), rather than the defeated David Valesky, is next in line to run the Health Committee in a Democrat-controlled chamber. Rivera is the lead Senate sponsor on the New York Health Act single-payer bill, NY A4738 (17R), which would obviously get a major boost if he is chairman.
And the rest of the chamber’s committees would see shake-ups, with members jockeying for jobs in their preferred policy topics, and leaders also needing to reward members who stayed loyal to the mainline conference despite spending years, or even decades, in the minority.
They also have to figure out a role for Julia Salazar, the democratic socialist who defeated Dilan. Barring a tremendous shock in November, she will come to Albany with a far higher stature than the typical freshman member. Democratic leaders will feel pressure to nod toward the rising movement she represents, while still needing to appeal to moderates in Long Island, Westchester and parts of upstate or risk returning to the minority once more.
It’s not clear how likely that is. Democratic operatives have been optimistic around the country and in New York that a “blue wave” is forming, but they’ve been confident in past election cycles only to have the Senate stay Republican when the dust settled.
“I have said for probably a decade now that just given the demographics and party registration that Democratic control of the state Senate is almost inevitable, but does it happen this year?” said Steve Greenberg, who represents Siena College Research Institute’s polling operation. “There are certainly more Republican seats that Democrats are going than the other way around. That said, these are local races. these are not national referendums [and] these are not state referendums.”
Kwatra was more optimistic.
“While there are no certainties in politics, if you look at Cuomo’s performance in Long Island, the Hudson Valley and other places where key state Senate races will be contested, Democrats significantly outperformed their traditional midterm performance,” he said. “If you take that and the trend lines from other primaries around the country we have had so far, Democrats seem certain to capture the senate this fall.”
Whatever happens, Thursday night’s anti-IDC victories did succeed in sending a message to would-be Democratic defectors.
“Last night demonstrated you need to run and act like you said you would,” said Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health and its political arm. “It doesn’t matter to us when they said you’re with us, when you’re working with Republicans who would never let it come to the floor.”