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Will New York State Senate Dems Finally Unite?

The New York Capitol Building in Albany
Hans Pennink
Exterior view from the plaza of the New York state Capitol in Albany, N.Y.

The state Democratic Party, led by Governor Andrew Cuomo, is offering carrots and sticks to two rival factions of Democrats in the State Senate, in an effort to get them to reunite and potentially rule the chamber.

Leaders of the state’s Democratic Party released a letter Monday evening, asking the eight member breakaway Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate to reunite with the mainstream Democrats. They say in a time where President Trump and the Republican Congress are pursuing policies that might harm New York, “to waste one more minute fighting each other is both unproductive and destructive.” The letter also contains a threat. The Democratic Party leaders, including the State Party Chair and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, and Queens Congressman Joseph Crowley, write that if “If the IDC refuses to accept this offer,” then the state party is prepared to run primaries against the senators in the 2018 elections.

Governor Cuomo, speaking in Syracuse Tuesday, says he backs the request.

“I urge both sides to stop their intramural disputes and unify,” Cuomo said.

Both the IDC and the mainstream Democrats, who have often exchanged bitter words, reacted positively. Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says mainstream Democrats are “willing to enter a coalition” and have long called for reunification of the two factions.

IDC Leader Jeff Klein said he’s “excited” by the prospect, and said he also wants the rest of the Democrats to adopt his group’s policy agenda, including transgender rights and public financing for campaigns, items supported by many mainstream Democrats. One day later, the Democratic Party leaders agreed to those terms.

The party leaders are not asking for reunification right away though. The Democrats will only have 30 seats at the start of the session in January, not the 32 needed to actually take control of the chamber away from the ruling Republicans. Two current Democratic Senators were elected earlier this month to new positions and will leave the senate at the end of year. The party leaders say they don’t think the two seats will be filled by a special election until after the state budget is approved in early April. They say the two groups could wait until after the budget to form a governing arrangement.

The left-leaning Working Families Party says that’s too long to wait. Executive Director Bill Lipton says special elections could be held as early as March 13, more than two and a half weeks before the budget is due.  

“Do we really want to live through yet another budget cycle with the Republicans in power?” Lipton asked. “Especially with Trump doing these massive tax cuts for the 1 percent that are going to result in eviscerating the safety net.”

Cuomo, in his seven years in office, has seemed content with the Republicans controlling the Senate, with the help of the breakaway Democrats, and Democrats running the Assembly. He has frequently touted his ability to work with both parties to achieve goals. At the event in Syracuse on Tuesday, Cuomo repeated that claim.

“Our mantra has been, and why we get the budgets done, ‘you can be  a Democrat, you can be a Republican, you’re a New Yorker first,’” Cuomo said. “And act in the best interest of New York.”  

The WFP’s Lipto  says Cuomo, who has tacitly backed the IDC in the past, now wants it both ways.

“Going into a reelection year with Trump as President, he wants to put that chapter behind him,” said Lipton, of Cuomo’s past tolerance of the IDC. “But he wants to do it after the budget because he would prefer to negotiate with the Republicans.”

A spokesman for the Senate Republicans, Scott Reif, agrees with Cuomo that Democrats and the GOP working together have been good for the state. Reif says the Senate should focus on “governing” in its present structure, and save the “politics” of the Democratic factions until later. And he hints that the unification of the two democratic factions in the senate might not mean much. He predicts the Republicans will gain seats in the 2018 elections, and will have the numerical majority to continue to rule the Senate.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.