New York state’s Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) members use well-rehearsed excuses for their empowering of Republicans. But these excuses only expose their guilt.
Excuse #1: The IDC’s treachery does not matter because Simcha Felder is treacherous too.
Officially, New York’s Senate has 63 members: 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans. But, since nine Senate Democrats, including eight IDC members and Democrat Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, caucus with Republicans, the GOP caucus governs with a 40/23 majority. For their part, IDC members have been tenacious in charging that Felder, rather than they, is the critical betrayer and forfeiter of a Democratic majority. Conference member Jose Peralta even displayed a placard reading “Felder #32” at a February town hall meeting in Queens to signal that Felder’s defection, alone, guaranteed Republicans a 32nd Senate seat and hence a majority.
Felder is indeed guilty. But so is the IDC, as its value to the GOP, both now and in the future, is easily understood: Now, the Conference functions as an insurance policy for Republicans, should Felder return to the Democratic fold. For if Felder rejoins the Democrats, their caucus must convince all eight IDC members to also rejoin. Such an undertaking would take several months, assuming that it succeeds. In the future, the GOP will expect the IDC to help it govern as a majority, no matter how many nominal Democrats are elected to the Senate. Again, even if the IDC betrays this GOP expectation, precious months will tick away as its members negotiate to do so.
Notably, Peralta promised, during his town hall*, that IDC members will abandon the GOP caucus whenever nominal Democrats secure a +2 majority or greater (+1 is not adequate, as Felder caucuses GOP). But history tells us that they will not do so. Consider that enough Democrats (both IDC and non-IDC) have jumped ship to help the GOP secure majorities in 2009, 2013, and 2017, even though Democrats won nominal majorities in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections. And logic dictates that if the IDC does not help swing majorities from Democrat to Republican, or at least promise to do so in the future, it would not serve the GOP, and would not be allowed to caucus in their majority. Securing GOP majorities is hence the IDC’s raison d’etre. Peralta may pretend to not understand this, but it’s true.
The IDC also serves to aid and abet Felder. Thousands of New Yorkers in the No IDC NY movement spend time and resources protesting the IDC when they could otherwise focus on pressuring Felder to re-form a Democratic majority. A laser focus on Felder could establish him in the public mind as the “Joe Lieberman of New York” and force him to fight for his political life – as Lieberman had to. But New Yorkers must now contend with nine Liebermans, thanks to the IDC.
Worse, the Conference gives Felder ideological cover that he has no business enjoying. Felder is probably an opportunist who would thwart his party for the right price, whether the IDC existed or not. But thanks to the IDC, Felder may plausibly claim that the IDC are the true turncoats, who should “unconditionally and publicly rejoin the Democrats.” Unserious and hypocritical, Felder may be, but he is no less guilty than the IDC, and his ability to deflect from his own guilt is a gift from the Conference.
Excuse #2: The IDC is essentially an anti-corruption project.
The IDC’s tapestry of excuses for existing requires delicate threading. Their condemnation of Felder implies an equal condemnation of GOP policy, since Felder empowers the latter. And IDC members take care to brand themselves as true progressives, whose broad policy goals are similar to left-liberals’. The Conference must thus explain why its means are so different from Democrats’, even though its ends are alike. Cue the old saw, “corruption in Albany.”
IDC leader Jeffrey Klein has consistently used this charge, claiming in a 2017 interview that Democrats’ “dysfunction and corruption” are major reasons why the IDC exists. At a 2011 news conference, Klein defended the IDC’s revolt: “Let me be clear. We are Democrats, but we could no longer in good conscience support the present Democratic leadership.”
At first glance, this anti-corruption argument seems sensible. Everyone who is familiar with New York politics knows that many of our legislators are criminals and that, in recent years, Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver (Democrat) and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (Republican) have been convicted of corruption charges.
But since the IDC caucuses with Republicans, it is not independent of the two parties in any important sense. And in order for their anti-corruption claim to be credible, IDC members would need to argue that Senate Republicans are less corrupt than Democrats. They do not do so.
Nor are IDC members or Republicans any less corrupt than Democrats. Of eleven New York senators who have been jailed or placed under house arrest since 2003**, six were Democrats and five were Republicans. Notably, however, three of those Democrats caucused with Republicans. Two of them, Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate, voted to wrest majority control from Democrats and give it to Republicans in a 2009 “parliamentary coup. The other, IDC member Malcolm Smith, joined the Conference in 2012 and even attempted to run for NYC’s mayoralty as a Republican.
As measured by imprisonments and house arrests, then, New York Senate Republicans are as corrupt as non-IDC Democrats, while Democrats caucusing with Republicans have been, per capita, the most corrupt group of senators in perhaps the most corrupt state in the entire U.S.
Hence, there is no reason to believe that the IDC’s existence has anything to do with avoiding corruption. And, since IDC members benefit from thousands of dollars in stipends, and perks such as larger offices, the IDC appears to be embracing rather than rejecting corruption.
Excuse #3: The IDC must join the majority Republicans because not doing so would be “sitting on the sidelines.”
Since GOP leader Skelos was convicted of corruption last year, anti-corruption arguments are more difficult for the IDC to make and members have preferred to emphasize their need to “get things done” as an essential reason to caucus with the Republicans. Klein, Peralta, and Marisol Alcantara of Harlem are serially claiming that they “can’t just sit on the sidelines” as the Republicans and Felder legislate as a majority caucus. But, like “Obamacare is imploding,” “we can’t just sit on the sidelines” is a magical phrase that IDC members use to avoid questions of substance.
One such question is why the IDC should suddenly want Democrats on the playing field. As recently as 2013, the Conference stole a majority from its own party, and handed it to the GOP. In the 2012 election, Democrats won 33 of 63 Senate seats and expected to govern with a +3 majority in the Senate. It was then that Felder first defected, reducing their majority to +1. But then, unlike now, Felder could not be solely blamed for the GOP majority. Rather, the IDC chose to effectively banish 28 members of the Democratic Party (all but IDC members and Felder) to the sidelines.
Ironically, IDC members’ most well-rehearsed reasons for existing are not only deceptive but quite the opposite of the truth. They claim to compromise with Republicans to help Democrats now, but they usurped a Democratic majority in 2013. They claim to eschew Democrats’ corruption, while they embrace Republicans’ corruption, and that of their own members. They do all of this while blaming Simcha Felder for their own sins, in a classic case of projection.
In spite of all of this, the IDC is flourishing; wagering that New Yorkers are too ignorant and apathetic to fight back.
* Peralta’s promise occurs near 41:30 in the linked video.
**The Syracuse.com website that I have linked to appears to provide a complete list, except that it errs in excluding Hiram Monserrate, whom I have added in my analysis. I have also added Democrat John Sampson, who was convicted in 2017.