One of the most salient issues affecting New York politics over the past several years has been the formation and existence of the Independent Democratic Conference in the state senate and how it affects the balance of Democrats and Republicans in Albany.
It’s made up of eight senators led by a homegrown politician, Jeffrey Klein. It’s a breakaway group from the Democrats in the senate that instead caucuses with Republicans, essentially giving the GOP a majority. The agenda, effectiveness and even morality of Klein’s IDC has been at the forefront of political discussion, and opinions are strong on both sides.
But probably none so much as Andrew Mutnick. He’s the co-leader of the IDC Action Group, an off-shoot of NYCD16-Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group in U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel’s congressional district. It’s made up of residents from Riverdale and other parts of state senate District 34, which Klein represents.
“Most people vote down a party line, and they expect certain things from the candidates who they vote for,” Mutnick said. “I think many people still don’t realize that when they voted for Jeff Klein, they voted for someone who is disempowering Democrats at the state level.”
Klein claims the IDC actually helps push progressive issues like single-payer health care, reproductive rights and equality stances. By working with Republicans, the IDC gets a seat at the table where their majority in the past would’ve have allowed it otherwise.
Mutnick and members of his group don’t see it that way. Instead, the IDC is the primary barrier separating Democrats from having full control of both chambers and the governor’s mansion, he said.
“The most important thing that we have done and are continuing to do is to get out on the streets and talk to people,” Mutnick said. “We’ve got some very good printed material as well that we’ve used that kind of clearly, graphically, and with text, helps people to understand that they voted for a Democrat who is doing whatever he can to fracture the party in his own state.”
The group makes use of palm cards where the eight IDC senators are pictured, along with statements on why they oppose the group. IDC Action members hand out these cards at neighborhood events, while others focus more on letter writing to publications including The Riverdale Press.
Klein, however, said IDC Action creates a false reality.
“What they’re basically doing is quite frankly lying about my record,” Klein said. “They’re creating a false narrative. First, that somehow that the IDC prevents the Democratic majority. You need 32 votes to elect a majority leader. The majority leader of the senate is John Flanagan. There’s nothing that the Independent Democratic Conference is doing right now that is standing in the way of a democratic majority.”
Logic might dictate all that’s needed to figure out who gets control of the senate is basic arithmetic. Yet the issue is not that simple.
Of the 63 members of the senate, 32 of them — including the members of the IDC — ran and were elected as Democrats. That, on a mathematical basis alone, gives Democrats a majority. Yet one of those Democrats is Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, who like the IDC, caucuses with Republicans, and helped elect Flanagan, a Republican, as majority leader.
Klein has claimed in the past that Felder would never switch allegiances to the Democrats in the senate. However, Felder blasted the IDC earlier this year after Klein’s group implored senate Democrats to sign a “unity pledge,” demanding the IDC members rejoin the ranks of the Democrats. Some observers have speculated that demand could include Felder following his own advice.
Another part of Klein’s defense is referencing the progressive legislation he and the IDC have helped pass. Examples include legislation changing how 16- and 17-year-olds are criminally prosecuted, as well as pushing for a $10 million legal defense fund to aid immigrants facing deportation.
Mutnick acknowledged those senate accomplishments, but was unsatisfied. To him, while they were better than nothing, those bills also did not have the progressive teeth that a Democratic senate might have passed.
Following the election win last November of Donald Trump to the White House and a win by Brian Benjamin in May to flip a seat to the Democrats, pressure has been stronger than ever to convince the IDC to join the Democrats. Even the state Democratic Committee has joined those calls, demanding that either IDC members re-align with the party, or not run as Democrats.
Would the IDC’s return to the Democratic Party be enough to satisfy detractors?
Perhaps. But that isn’t something Mutnick’s group is banking on. As it stands now, one of IDC Action’s top priorities is finding a primary challenger for Klein in the 2018 election.
“If we all woke up tomorrow and they walked back and rejoined the conference, that would make everyone happy,” Mutnick said. “But the likelihood of that is low.”
Staff writer Alexandra Hutzler contributed to this report.