For seven years, the Independent Democratic Conference was an unignorable aspect of state government: an Albany power-sharing mechanism between Republicans and renegade Democrats.
It helped keep the State Senate red and Long Island’s delegation in the driver’s seat, and was a perfect example of the fun-house world of the capitol, where nothing makes much sense and forward motion is often fruitless.
But the peculiar arrangement was shattered during Thursday’s Democratic primaries with losses by six of eight former members of the IDC.
That included IDC leader Jeff Klein of the Bronx, who lost to 32-year-old lawyer and Hillary Clinton campaign veteran Alessandra Biaggi.
The challengers’ successes are noteworthy because of the great power that the IDC had amassed before it was disbanded in April in an agreement with powerbrokers worried about the rise of the party’s left-wing. Large campaign coffers and the reliable support of unions came with the IDC’s seemingly solid place at the Albany power-sharing table. Did you really want to go against one of the four men in a room who run New York State? Not long ago, even in blue New York, the anti-IDC movement was limited to social media and off-the-record conversations.
Biaggi underscored that underdog status. She is a political newcomer whose early campaign headquarters was in her parents’ house in Pelham Manor, where she had moved back in for the run, still owing student loans. Meanwhile, Klein had and used a hefty campaign war chest.
But President Donald Trump’s election helped change the equation. Suddenly, politically engaged New Yorkers were taking a second look at the IDC setup. They were going to town halls and called one IDC member a “traitor.” Why were Democrats helping to give the State Senate gavel to Republicans, making it harder to bring progressive legislation to a vote? Now the IDC became “fake Democrats,” and on Thursday they suffered the ardor and turnout of activists and voters who couldn’t yet cast their ballots against Trump.
But the post-IDC era also was ushered in by candidates who had more going for them than a wave. The candidates were often deeply plugged in to their districts — Biaggi is the granddaughter of a former congressman, for example — and stumped hard throughout. They were able to weave national and local issues, from Medicare for All to affordable housing.
Also, they had establishment help: in support of Biaggi, powerful services union 32BJ SEIU spent thousands of dollars, knocked on 10,000 doors and made 15,000 calls, according to a spokeswoman. Two of the anti-IDC winners, Robert Jackson (a former city councilman) and John Liu (who was city comptroller), were veteran politicians themselves who had name recognition and old favors to add to the wave. Some prominent Democrats stayed on the sidelines for either side, and others, like New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and city Comptroller Scott Stringer, sensed the changing winds and worked for the challengers, helping to make this more than a social-media race.
Will any of this change the balance of power in Albany? Democrats still need to win seats in non-NYC districts to take power in the State Senate. But now the possibility of a reborn IDC is much less likely, which may disappoint Senate Republicans — led by East Northport’s John Flanagan — who had counted on the arrangement if the GOP lost a few seats, possibly on Long Island, in the fall. And the takedown of a historic Albany power broker likely sends a message to Democrats of all stripes ahead of their next date with the polls.
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.