Many of today’s lawmakers changed their work address to Albany after long careers of doing something else. But for Jeffrey Klein, spending his life as a public servant is something he almost always wanted to do.
On Thursday, Sept. 13, he’s asking voters to continue that career dating back to the 1980s with another term in the state senate.
“I have always been very active in a lot of civic organizations, and active in Democratic politics,” Klein said. “It was important to not just do the politics, but get involved and get entrenched in the community work.”
Klein might be a controversial figure in the field of politics, but he’s a well-known one, pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars into the district, and now holding the No. 2 position in the senate’s minority leadership. That puts him in a position to really push for a number of progressive bills that stalled under Republican leadership — a leadership that was helped, in part, by Klein’s former group of breakaway Democrats, the Independent Democratic Conference. The IDC dissolved last spring, and while Klein continues to take heat for its existence in the first place, the senator is the first to defend the group.
“Without my leadership and my members of the Independent Democratic Conference, as good as Gov. Cuomo is, he wouldn’t have got anything done,” Klein said. That includes measures that did make it through a Republican-controlled senate like paid family leave, the $15 minimum wage, and an immigration legal defense fund that has supplied $15 million in legal services to those trying to avoid Trump administration-led deportations.
“It’s interesting, a few days ago I went to sit with lawyers who were recipients of some of the funds to hear some of the stories, and they were bringing a federal lawsuit against two lawyers who were promising people they would get them asylum and help them fill out the paperwork for asylum,” Klein said. “They didn’t even do it properly. They submitted the paperwork, and now these people are getting deported. Not only did they take their money, but they are getting them deported to boot.”
A lot of the latest vitriol against the IDC has come since Donald Trump was sworn in as president. But while Klein’s group was not working directly with Democrats, he believes he was still pushing for the cause of Democrats.
Yet, it’s created what Klein has called a civil war within the party. The senator says he doesn’t shy away from primary competition, yet Republicans have put up potential opponents for many seats, many of them unchallenged by other members of their own party. Whomever comes out on top in next Thursday’s primary will have little time to regroup and turn their focus to the general election.
“I think we have to unite as Democrats,” Klein said. “All of us. It shouldn’t be necessary for there to be Indivisible Democrats, or True Blue Democrats, or socialist Democrats. We need to have a message as Democrats that resonates all over the state of New York.”
After graduating from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Klein spent a brief time in the private sector before becoming the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. James Scheuer, who spent 28 years representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Klein moved on to become a state committeeman, and a Democratic district leader, as well as serving on his community board.
When Assemblyman George Friedman moved to the bench as a judge, Klein decided to run for his seat covering an area of the Bronx just east of Kingsbridge.
“I ran against the Bronx (political) organization, and Friedman’s hand-picked successor,” Klein said.
He won, spending nine years in the lower chamber until the senator representing much of his coverage area — Republican Guy Velella — was ensnared in a corruption scandal, opening the seat for Klein, who moved to the senate in January 2005.
“That seat was in Republican hands for 55 years,” Klein said. “I gave up a safe seat in the Assembly and jumped into a hotly contested senate race that the entire state was paying attention to. And the minute I won, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.”
But life in the senate was far more difficult than what Klein had in the Assembly. Republicans controlled the chamber when he arrived, and when Democrats were able to wrest control away in 2008, all Klein found was dysfunction.
“I did the best I could considering what we were all dealing with,” he said. “We did have some accomplishments, however. I started getting involved in the whole foreclosure issue, and at the time, I was ahead of the curve. We did do some things, but not a lot of the things we promised. We never passed equality, we never had a vote to codify Roe v. Wade, and we never did independent redistricting.”
Democrats have a chance to win back control of the senate again in November. And if re-elected, Klein hopes to make the next Democratic stint much different as deputy leader. Yet, the party must be careful, Klein warns: Getting a majority does not automatically mean bills will be passed.
“The Assembly has this super-majority (of Democrats), and there are still 20 or 30 members that vote no on stuff,” he said. “You have to be mindful that sometimes people vote their own minds. And when some of them realize their vote means so much, it becomes shakedown city, and everything is at the whim of these two or three people.”
And that’s why, in the end, party unity matters to Klein — so much he folded his IDC back into the Democrats.
“We need a message that resonate with all New Yorkers,” he said, “and then we have to govern that way as well.”