The ugliness of New York politics


Both the state and city of New York, despite being seen as ‘liberal’ and dominated by the Democratic party, have long had a reputation for ugly politics, where backroom deals are cut between powerful politicians and business and other interests at the expense of the welfare of the people in general. The current governor Andrew Cuomo is emblematic of this kind of machine politics and it was hoped that the current insurgent uprising within the Democratic party would result in both him and other statewide office-holders being replaced by more progressive voices.

But Thursday’s primaries saw Cuomo getting an easy victory over his challenger Cynthia Nixon. The only benefit was that as a result of Nixon’s candidacy, Cuomo was forced to take some progressive stances during the campaign that he had avoided before. Following his victory, though, Cuomo lost no time in belittling the insurgent progressive movement and its standard bearers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It looks like he is eying a presidential run in 2020 as a Democratic ‘moderate’, the kind of person the corporate media absolutely swoons over.

That result was not really a surprise. Cuomo had a huge advantage in name recognition, money, and incumbency and always led in the polls. There was more hope for the election of state attorney general where Zephyr Teachout was hoping to win the nomination on a platform of prosecutorial reform and taking on the big banks. But she lost to Letitia James in a contest that had a third candidate take 25% of the vote. James has a fairly progressive record. The key problem with her is that she is allied with Cuomo and was endorsed by him and may feel obliged to him. Unless she is willing to break free of those shackles, she will be just another machine politician.

But Eoin Higgins writes that when you look at other results, there is a lot to cheer about, especially the rout of the group known as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) in the New York State senate. This was a group of Democratic state senators who decided to align with the Republican senators to create a majority in return for being given important committee chair positions. Thus although Democrats were nominally in the majority in the state senate, Republicans actually had a functioning majority. Cuomo seemed to encourage this arrangement since it prevented progressive bills coming to his desk to sign. (Did I mention that New York politics is dirty?)

For years, the IDC effectively turned control of the state Senate over to the GOP, contrary to the wishes of voters who sent Democratic majorities to Albany in 2012 and 2016. The conference first came into existence in January 2011, when Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx and three other Democrats — Carlucci; Diane Savino, D-Staten Island; and David Valesky, D-Oneida — broke from the Democratic caucus and joined what was then a Republican majority in exchange for committee chair positions and increased power. “They decided that they would make alliance with the Republicans to be in power and get perks,” said George Albro, co-chair of the New York Progressive Action Network.

A year later, in 2012, the Democrats won a majority of seats in the chamber. But Klein, Carlucci, Savino, and Valesky, joined by then-Sen. Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, decided to stay aligned with the GOP senators. “They gave what would otherwise be a minority party control against their own party,” said Albro.

Smith was removed from the caucus after his indictment on corruption charges in 2013, but the caucus picked up Tony Avella, D-Queens, the next February. Avella and Klein faced primary challenges in 2014, but both survived. The rest of the conference members were unchallenged in their primaries. In 2016, after the general election, Sens. Marisol Alcantara, D-Manhattan, and Jesse Hamilton, D-Brooklyn, joined the IDC; in January 2017, Sen. Jose Peralta, D-Queens, became a member.

That’s where things stood until April of this year. The group dissolved following a meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has long been seen as an ally and quiet backer of a Republican-led state Senate. “It’s clear that Cuomo was behind this,” said Albro. “He supported and never challenged them, then this year he called them into his office and they immediately disbanded.”

The IDC has come under repeated criticism for stymying the ability of Democrats in the Senate to get things done. Progressives cite the caucus’s alliance with Republicans as one of the factors preventing the Senate from addressing legislation — like single-payer health care, marijuana legalization, and the DREAM Act — meant to improve the lives of New Yorkers. Cuomo didn’t seem interested in exercising his power over what could pass through the Senate, Kang told The Intercept. “Cuomo made sure not much reform got through anyway.”

But that unholy alliance received a drubbing on Thursday, with six of its eight members losing their primary elections.

The majority of members of the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, have been defeated in the New York state and local primary election. Six members of the defunct group, which broke away from Senate Democrats to hand control of the chamber to the Republicans in 2011 and caucused with the GOP until April, followed their leader, Jeffrey Klein, in defeat. Klein fell to Alessandra Biaggi in a shocking upset. It’s a steep fall from political grace for Klein, who as the leader of the IDC was one of the most powerful people in Albany for nearly seven years, and leaves just two of the former IDC members behind.

That is a very good sign. It will result in more progressive measures being passed in the state legislature, forcing Cuomo to reveal exactly where he stands.

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