Klein finds unity with Democrats ... for now

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The long nightmare has ended — at least as far as Democrats in the state senate are concerned.

The Independent Democratic Conference — a group of breakaway Democrats led by Sen. Jeffrey Klein — has agreed to end its long-standing alliance with senate Republicans and is ready to rejoin Democrats to advance progressive policies. 

It’s a reunification  years in the making — but also one that not only stands on very shaky ground, according to some observers, but is meeting with considerable opposition.

Once special elections are called to fill two vacant senate seats expected to land in Democratic hands, Klein has pledged to bring his eight IDC members back to the Democratic side, and to co-lead as partners through a similar arrangement Klein already enjoys with Republicans.

“This is a very exciting development,” Klein said, in a statement. “Since its very inception, the IDC has worked to move the senate out of dysfunction to advance progressive policies. We are eager and ready to be a part of a Democratic coalition that could proudly and publicly state what its legislative positions are going into the 2018 session.”

In order for the coalition to work, the Democrats not only need to win the two vacant seats, but they’ll also have to convince Brooklyn senator Simcha Felder to rejoin his party as well. Felder, elected to the senate as a Democrat, continues to pledge his loyalty to the Republican leadership.

The idea was proposed by Buffalo mayor Byron Brown, who also is chair of the state Democratic Party. In a letter sent to both Klein and senate minority leader Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Brown said the “progress of the Democratic agenda” trumps all other concerns.

“Going into 2018 the Democratic Party has great momentum behind our agenda and our candidates,” Brown said. “To waste one more minute fighting each other is both unproductive and destructive to the real mission of winning Congressional seats to help take back the House of Representatives.”

The choice, Brown laid out, was simple — rejoin the Democrats, or face serious primary election challenges with candidates hand-picked by the Democratic Party.

But even if the alliance does survive long enough to establish Democratic leadership in the senate, Klein and others in the IDC may not necessarily earn a free pass when election season comes up.

A coalition of anti-IDC groups — like TrueBlueNY and No IDC NY — blasted the alliance, saying it does nothing more than “reward” the IDC for “seven years of enabling the GOP.” They also claim that “despite the fanfare around this deal, in practice, nothing will change.”

“This same thing happened in 2014 when the IDC was supposed to come back to the Democrats,” said Jack Marth, who helped organize a forum last month at Lehman College to fight the IDC. “When it came down to it, they just said, ‘Nah. We’re going to stick with the Republicans.’”

Andrew Mutnick, co-leader of the IDC Action Group — an offshoot of NYCD16-Indivisible — believes this agreement is nothing more than a ploy to keep primary challengers away from Klein and other IDC members. The agreement wouldn’t take effect until after the statewide budget is approved next spring, and that would take everyone well into primary season.

“The key is the timing on how this deal has been structured,” Mutnick said. “If they were so sincere about going back to the conference, why not now? Why not today?

“It’s because the real goal is to choke off any primary opposition.”

Under the deal proposed by Brown, Stewart-Cousins and Klein would become co-leaders in the senate. Both would have the right to attend leaders meetings, approve bills that come to the floor, and both would have the right to approve each other’s deputies.

Both also would refrain from participating in primary challenges against incumbent senators.

“This solution is both reasonable and, if the parties act in good faith, it would resolve the ongoing distrust and ensure a lasting peace and long-term working relationship,” Brown said. “We believe this is an equitable way to resolve the ongoing impasse, and your responses will determine the genuine motivation of the respective parties.”

Groups like TrueBlueNY and the IDC Action Group are unhappy they weren’t invited to the table to discuss reunification, Marth said. That oversight means those groups aren’t bound by whatever agreements the Democrats make with the IDC.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to support this agreement anyway,” he said. “I am not part of the Democratic establishment, and I will be strongly supporting any primary candidate that is taking on Klein.”

A former member of Mutnick’s group already plans to challenge Klein for his seat. Lewis Kaminski filed to run for the senate’s 34th district last fall. He told reporters in the past he’s no longer a member of the IDC Action Group, and it’s not clear if those groups will back him in a primary challenge.

In the meantime, Klein is touting the unity plans as a victory for what he describes as his legislative agenda, which includes advocacy for reproductive health, single-payer health care, and public campaign finance reform.

“The state party’s assurance that our progressive legislative agenda will be advanced is a victory for the people of New York,” Klein said in a statement. “There is no reason for the special elections to be held up, and I suggest they be held as soon as the law permits.”

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