Recently, New York politics (maybe) changed dramatically, with Governor Andrew Cuomo brokering a deal that would see the so-called “Independent Democratic Conference” (IDC) rejoin the mainstream Democratic caucus and return control of the legislature (after a special election in a Democratic-leaning suburban district) to the party that a majority of New Yorkers voted for for the first time in seven years:
Facing pressure from progressive groups and primary challengers up and down the ballot, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday announced an agreement to end a controversial power-sharing deal between state Republicans and a breakaway group of Democratic lawmakers.
The new pact ends the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference’s 7-year-old agreement, which helped guarantee GOP control of New York’s state Senate. Their outsize influence has fueled aggressive campaigns, which will persist in spite of the accord, to unseat both the incumbent governor and IDC senators…
“Frankly, I don’t give a damn about somebody’s ego or somebody’s title or what position they insist on — the Democratic agenda comes first,” [Cuomo] told supporters. “And if they’re not willing to unify, as 32 Democrats, then let them get the hell out of the Democratic Party because they’re not Democrats.”
The timing of this meeting, so soon after Cythnia Nixon’s announced a primary challenge (making the specific case that Cuomo had abandoned core Democratic values by supporting the IDC), is a testament to two things. First, that political pressure from the flanks absolutely works and second, that Cuomo’s political modus operandi of dropping people the moment it’s politically convenient for him to do so remains consistent no matter who he’s screwing over.
Corruption’s Such An Old Song
First, a bit of background for those of our readers who aren’t familiar with New York State politics. The IDC emerged in the wake of the Democratic wave of 2008, which saw the New York State Senate flip to a narrow Democratic majority for the first time in over thirty years. Four corrupt and reactionary Democratic Senators – Pedro Espada Jr. (convicted for embezzlement), Ruben Diaz Sr. (anti-choice homophobe extraordinaire), Karl Krueger (pled guilty to bribery), and Hiram Monserrate (convicted for assaulting his girlfriend with a broken bottle) – refused to vote for a Democratic Majority Leader, which led the Senate to deadlock and led to an ugly leadership crisis which paralyzed the government and contibuted to Republicans narrowly regaining the chamber in the 2010 elections.
After that election, a leadership change within the Democratic caucus led Jeffrey D. Klein (the former Deputy Leader and guy in charge of bringing the four rebels back into the fold) to flip over to the Republicans along with three other Democrats (Diane Savino, David Valesky, and David Carlucci) in exchange for committee chairmanships and other perks (more on this in a bit). This new group formally took on the name “Independent Democratic Conference” to avoid the completely fair accusation that they had betrayed their Democratic voters.
The IDC has been a thorn in the side of Democratic (and democratic) governance ever since:
- In 2012, Democrats retook the Senate Majority, but the IDC recruited Simcha Fielder, Malcom Smith, and Tony Avella to give the Republicans just enough votes to keep control of the Senate in the hands of Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos (corrption conviction overturned by the U.S Supreme Court, awaiting retrial).
- In 2014, the Working Families Party targeted Klein and Avella for primary challenges to punish them for their defection and repeated thwarting of the wishes of the electorate. In response, Klein pledged publicly that the IDC would rejoin the Democratic caucus, and he and Avella managed to retain their seats as a result. When Republicans maintained control of the Senate that year, Klein went back on his word.
- In 2016, Democrats once again retook the majority in the Senate by a single seat, and Klein responded by recruiting eight more Democrats into the IDC to ensure once again that the Republicans would hold the majority no matter what the electorate wanted.
However, recent events have shaken the IDC’s grasp on the Senate. Trump’s election in 2016 and the resulting renewed activism on the part of New Yorkers made collaboration with Republicans far more toxic than it had been in the past. A New York Times expose in 2017 revealed that IDC members had been paid tens of thousands of dollars a year in supplemental salaries (known in Albany parlance as “lulus”) that are only supposed to be paid to committee chairmen, and had covered it up by falsely listing IDC members as chairmen. This brought unwelcome attention from the NY Attorney General and the U.S Attorney for Brooklyn, and recently the Comptroller has been talking about withholding the “lulu” payments to the IDC. Clearly, the grift was running out of time…
The Room Where It Happens
So where was Andrew Cuomo (link) when all of this was going on, and what was his connection to the IDC? The IDC formed the same year that Cuomo won election as Governor in a landslide and has remained in power ever since, and many progressive activists have charged that Cuomo has worked to keep the IDC in power because it allowed him to be the balance of power between the Democratic-controlled Assembly and the Republican-controlled Senate, and ensured that progressive policy priorities could be waved aside by gesturing in the latter’s direction until it became politically useful for him to make concessions.
Cuomo has repeatedly denied these charges, saying that legislative coalitions were out of his control:
“It didn’t matter as much when we’re not in the majority,” Cuomo said. Democrats, even if the IDC’s eight lawmakers returned to the fold, would remain in the minority. “It’s easy to have intramural politics when you’re not in the majority because it doesn’t matter. But when you hit 32, now it’s serious.”
Cuomo had frequently downplayed his sway with the rogue Democrats, telling a curbside inquisitor last summer, “I can perform marriages, but I can’t force them.”
“It takes two to tango,” he added, walking off.
This claim becomes harder to credit when a single meeting, instigated by Cuomo without the advance knowledge of Democratic leadership, was all it took to get the IDC to fold. The timing is especially suspicious – the IDC just so happened to agree just after the passage of a new budget which coincidentally happened to leave out progressive priorities like reforming cash bail, extending the statute of limitations on child sex abuse, and establishing early voting, among other things. Delaying their move allowed Cuomo to negotiate a budget without Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the room (something of a continuing motif for Cuomo).
This has been the pattern from the beginning of the IDC’s existence: both Cuomo and the IDC liked the influence that a Republican-controlled Senate allowed them, not least the ability to ignore the preferences of the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, and so Cuomo protected the IDC in return for them allowing him to slow-roll on progressive priorities like state sanctuary laws or single-payer health care.
Indeed, the two shared the same enemies and used the same tactics – the same year that Klein and Avella were primaried by the Working Families Party, Cuomo was facing a primary challenge from his left from Zephyr Teachout. And just as Klein promised to rejoin the Democratic caucus to ensure re-election and then went back on his word once he was back in office, Cuomo agreed to the Working Families Party’s demands (which included supporting progressive challengers to IDC members running for re-election) in order to get their endorsement and deny it to Teachout, and then promptly reneged on his promise and then tried to undermine the WFP at the ballot box.
Dont Let Them Know What You’re Against Or What You’re For
So how should we think about this deal? I would argue that there are a few key takeways:
- Pressure works. Just as Cuomo was forced to make concessions on the minimum wage when the Fight for Fifteen movement pressured him, Cynthia Nixon’s campaign pushed Cuomo to do what he’d been refusing to do for years. This is absolutely a model that the Left should use again in New York and elsewhere.
- We need to keep up the pressure (on both the IDC and Cuomo). As discussed above, both the IDC and Cuomo have no scruples when it comes to breaking promises when it suits their political interests, and we’ve seen them make the same kind of promises before. Progressives should absolutely continue their primary challenges to both the IDC and Cuomo, so that either both are defeated or it remains politically necessary for them to follow through this time.
- Keep Cuomo accountable for his history. Another classic Cuomo move is to rewrite history in order to make himself look better, claiming to be a stalwart champion of causes he avoided tackling until the very last minute. In this case, Cuomo’s thundering about Democratic unity right before he has to go through a Democratic primary election is meant to rhetorically cover up for the fact that he’s openly campaigned against his own party in the past. And if Cuomo wins re-election and runs for president in 2020 as many expect, he will spin this (and many other incidents) hard to avoid being tainted in the eyes of Democratic primary voters outside of New York. The best way to get him back is to loudly remind voters in New Hampshire (and to a lesser extent in Iowa) when the time comes.