ALBANY -- An agreement was struck Tuesday to reunite state Senate Democrats to try to wrest control of the chamber from Republicans, an effort that might hinge on an upcoming special election.
Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), the leader of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, signed onto a proposal by the state Democratic Committee that would unite Democrats with two co-leaders, Klein, and Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers), head of the mainline Democrats.
The factions have been at odds since Klein co-founded the IDC in 2011 and went on in 2013 to form power-sharing agreements with Republicans to form a majority. Klein currently shares power with Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport).
Importantly, if the new alliance comes together, it won’t be until after the state budget is adopted by its April 1 deadline, according to the proposal. That means Republicans still would be in control of the Senate during the most important part of the legislative session when most of the major policy measures are tackled.
The deal was backed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who in the past touted his ability to work with Republicans to craft what he’s called a pragmatic agenda, but who has been under increasing criticism from liberal activists and national Democrats for not helping the party take over the state Senate.
Yet uncertainty remains.
For the Democrats to reach the required 32 seats to control the 63-seat chamber, they would have to win two special elections expected to be scheduled in April or later. Though Democrats almost are assured of winning one vacacny in the Bronx, an open seat in Westchester County will be more competitive. Further, Democrats would also need to gain the support of conservative Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn), who has allied with the Republican majority despite his party registration.
Senate Republicans, who have controlled the chamber for most of the last 50 years, cited Senate rules that require 38 votes to change functions in the chamber -- which effectively dictate the control what bills advance and fail. That could forestall any change in majority until after the November 2018 legislative elections, the GOP contends.
“There’s a time for politics and a time for governing, and it’s unfortunate that some in Albany can’t ever separate the two,” said Scott Reif, spokesman for Flanagan. “Based on our record of delivering for taxpayers and their families, we fully expect to grow our majority next year. In the meantime, we are hopeful that everyone involved will continue to work together to move this state forward because it is the best interest of the people of New York.”
Klein gave his tentative support for the Democratic proposal on Monday, but required the party and the mainline Democrats to agree to pursue his policy objectives including strengthening abortion laws. Tuesday, he said he received the assurances he needed.
“The state party’s assurance that our progressive legislative agenda will be advanced is a victory for the people of New York,” Klein said. “I look forward to implementing the terms that have been outlined in yesterday’s letter”
Stewart-Cousins, who hopes to be New York’s first woman to lead a legislative majority, has pushed repeatedly over the last year for reunification to end the GOP’s control in the state dominated 2-1 by Democratic voters.
“There is too much at stake for New Yorkers to wait any longer for their wishes to be fulfilled,” she said in a statement.
The state party is controlled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has faced increasing criticism by liberal activists and national Democratic leaders for working closely with the Republicans and the IDC to advance his agenda. Cuomo is also facing re-election in 2018. His supporters want him to consider a 2020 run for president in which he would have to attract liberal voters who dominate Democratic primaries.
Hours before Klein announced his support of the proposal on Tuesday, Cuomo publicly backed the idea.
“The state party put a proposal on the table yesterday that I strongly support and I urge both sides to end their intramural dispute and unify because we have real issues like this issue of federal taxation,” Cuomo said at a Syracuse press event.
Buffalo Mayor and state Party Chairman Byron Brown, in annoucing the factions’ agreement, said: “There can be no progressive advancement while some Democrats are sitting with Republican conservatives. The entire point of this unification effort is to advance the Democrat’s substantive progressive agenda.”
— With Yancey Roy