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New York State Senate IDC—With Democrats Like These, Who Needs Republicans?

The Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, is a group of eight New York Democrat State senators who caucus with Republicans. Founded in 2011, the New York State Senate IDC’s aim is to thwart banking and finance regulation, tax increases on the wealthy, and other progressive policies. They, along with their GOP partners, serve the monied donor class and not their constituents. In fact, they have an actual power-sharing agreement with the Republican leadership. Given this, they might as well be Republicans. Which raises the question: Why do they still run as Democrats?

In order to answer this question, we must consider some history on how they came to be.

A Nest for the IDC Is Formed

In 2008, the Democratic Party became a majority in the state Senate for the first time since 1964. But with a mere 32 of the 62 seats, it was a slim majority. And of those 32, four — Ruben Diaz, Carl Kruger, Hiram Monserrate, and Pedro Espada — refused to support the Democrats’ leader, Malcolm Smith.

Why, you ask? While it is true that Smith was later indicted on bribery and corruption charges, that wasn’t the reason. The reason can be traced back to billionaire donor and Paychex CEO Tom Golisano of Upstate New York. Although Golisano has been variously registered through the years as a Republican and an Independent, he has given millions to the Democrats, including a million for their 2008 convention in Denver. So it can be said that the only thing Tom is committed to is protecting his wealth.

In 2009, with the aid of Democratic operative Steve Pigeon and a distant Republican, Roger Stone (Yes that Roger Stone), Golisano engaged in a series of private meetings with a handful of Republican senators and a Democrat named Pedro Espada.

New York State Senate IDC

Senators Dean Skelos and Pedro Espada Jr. address the media on the day of the Senate’s Special Session as part of the 2009 New York State Senate leadership crisis. (Photo by Matt Ryan [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

What unfolded can only be described as a political coup. In June of that year, two Democrats — Espada and Hiram Monserrate — joined with the 30 Republicans, took over the upper chamber of the State Senate, and installed Espada as president. On June 15, after negotiations, Monserrate returned to caucusing with the Democrats, which tied the chamber at 31 to 31. In response, Espada, on June 17, insisted that since he was Senate President, he could vote twice — once as a Senator, and secondly as Temporary President, since that position is charged with the same duties as Lieutenant Governor — thus breaking the tie. When that was deemed untenable, Espada rejoined the Democrats on July 9. He became Majority Leader, with Smith as Senate President. These maneuvers paralyzed the government for several weeks, causing the State of New York to lose as much as $150 million in revenue due to lapsed legislation and uncollected taxes.
Jeffrey Klein, the soon-to-be founder of the IDC who had become the Deputy Majority Leader in 2008, was tasked with corralling Espada, Diaz, Kruger, and Monserrate into the Democratic caucus. But instead, as the drama unfolded, he began to work behind the scenes to orchestrate his own power grab.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Things did not end well for several members of this coup. In 2010, Espada was accused by then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo of stealing 14 million from a government-funded program, Soundview Healthcare Network. Though Espada claimed Cuomo’s move was politically motivated, an ensuing FBI investigation led to a sentence in 2013 of five years in prison for four counts of stealing from the healthcare network.

What about Steve Pigeon, the Democratic operative who spearheaded the clandestine meetings and co-chaired Golisano’s Responsible New York PAC? He too was convicted of bribery and corruption for bribing State Supreme Court Justice John Michalek to influence the outcomes of pending litigation before his court. Judge Michalek pleaded guilty and resigned. And in October of 2017, Pigeon was indicted on counts of conspiracy, extortion, wire fraud, and bribery. If convicted, he could face 20 years in prison.

And what of Carl Kruger? He was sentenced to 7 years in prison on bribery charges. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to accepting more than $1 million in contributions from two hospital executives and their lobbyists. In return, he had offered beneficial legislation — a classic quid pro quo.

HIRAM MONSERRATE
(Photo by Matt Ryan, CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As for Hiram Monserrate — well, surprise, surprise! He too was indicted on federal corruption charges in 2010. He spent 20 months in prison for diverting $100,000 in government funds to his campaign using a nonprofit. And for an added bonus, he was expelled from the State Senate for slashing his girlfriend’s face with a piece of broken glass. The punch line is that Monserrate is currently running for City Council.

So it appears that from this original pre-IDC group, only Ruben Diaz escaped with a clean record.

Feathering the Nest

Now let’s talk Tom. The money man behind all of this, Tom Golisano, is the founder of a company called Paychex that handles payroll and other outsourced human resource contracts. According to Forbes, in 2017 he was the 264th wealthiest American with a net worth of around $3 billion. Prior to joining the Republican Party, for a period of time in 2005 he formed his own party with a handful of other wealthy New Yorkers called the Independence Party. And although he never won an election, he ran for governor under this party in 1994, 1998, and 2002, spending in the aggregate around $93 million on the three campaigns. He also formed a PAC entitled Responsible New York that claimed to be for government reform. The PAC has given money to candidates of both major parties — mainly to incumbents. The common thread among these incumbents is support for cutting property taxes and fighting all increases in income tax for the wealthiest Americans. These goals are reflected in his published manifesto of why he was moving to Florida, in which he stated, “After reviewing the 2009 budget, I have identified the most compelling incentive of all: a major tax break immediately available to all New Yorkers. To be eligible, you need only do one thing: move out of New York State.”

After Golisano moved to Florida, the Independence Party continued to flourish. In 2012, through the Moreland Commission Panel on Political Corruption, it came to light that they had misused funds to target two Democratic candidates — Terry Gipson and Joseph Addabbo. Apparently, the Republican Party had illegally transferred more than $350,000 from its own campaign to the housekeeping account of the Independence Party in order to pay for the attack ads targeting Gipson and Addabbo.

The IDC Hatchling Emerges

Which brings us back to Jeffrey Klein.

As previously mentioned, Klein became the Deputy Majority Leader in 2008. Then in 2010, when the Democrats lost seats, Klein was put in charge of regaining them, which gave him the perfect opportunity to finally fulfill his power-sharing idea with the Republicans. Klein struck a deal with then-Republican leader Dean Skelos. Their agreement stated that the New York State Senate IDC would have formal recognition as a permanent third conference in the state Senate and that the GOP conference leader and the IDC conference leader would “administer joint and equal authority” over legislative flow, leadership appointments, and budget negotiations. They additionally created the title “Temporary President,” which would alternate between the two leaders every two weeks. The original members of the IDC included David Carlucci (District 38, Rockland), Diane Savino (District 23, Staten Island and Brooklyn), and David Valesky (District 53, Syracuse). Importantly, Andrew Cuomo was not passive. Instead, he blessed the deal.

Superficially, it should be clear that this contractually shut out the Democrats since they did not have a conference leader included in the agreement. Yet the more troubling aspect of this development is how this arrangement thwarted progressive legislators and policies in the state. In 2012, for example, when the Democrats won a majority, the IDC continued to caucus with the Republicans instead of returning to caucus with the Democrats. The same thing happened in 2016. So even when the Democrats have won a majority, the Republicans have continued to control the Senate because of the IDC and its power-sharing agreement.

IDC Domination and Damage

So how have Klein and the other IDC members benefitted from this arrangement? For starters, IDC members have been appointed to committee positions by the Republicans with whom they align. Those appointments come with stipends, bonuses, and bigger offices with more staff. The added pork going back to the district also hasn’t hurt in campaigning for reelection.

The current IDC group consists of eight senators plus ringleader Klein. The group includes the original three members plus Tony Avella (District 11, Queens), Jesse Hamilton (District 20, Brooklyn), Jose Perlata (District 13, Queens), and Marisol Alacantara (District 31, Manhattan).

The number of progressive bills killed by the IDC is staggering. Wickedly, these are bills that relate to areas of policy that these candidates claim to support on their platforms. Yet when such bills get passed by the Assembly and reach the Senate, they die in committee. If they do make it to the floor, what gets passed is so neutered that it might as well have died in committee. The pattern that has emerged over the years is clear. Some of these bills are:

  • Reproductive Health Act — A01748
  • Universal Single-Payer Healthcare — A05062
  • Limits Denial Of Coverage Of Additional Treatment Related To Health Care Services — A01378
  • Climate and Community Protection Act — A10342
  • Sanctuary State Law — A02432
  • Full Day Kindergarten Funding — A08692
  • DREAM Act — A04311
  • GENDA (LBGTQ) — A04558
  • Voting Rights — A00204 and A10370
  • New York State Fair Pay Act — A06937
  • Campaign Finance Reform — A09535

Follow the Money

A look at who is financing the IDC goes a long way toward explaining the not-so-hidden agenda. Board of Elections filings show that the IDC has taken money from special interest groups that include: Success Academy charter schools, Coalition for Public Charter Schools, Greater New York Hospital Association, Real Estate Board of New York (Both Eric and Ivanka Trump are members), and the Neighborhood Preservation PAC.

Moreover, after a deal struck in 2016, the IDC is now utilizing two campaign accounts — the Senate Independence Campaign Committee account and the Senate Independence Campaign Committee Housekeeping account. Both are associated with the Independence Party. (yes. that Independence Party). And since the Independence Party is an actual statewide political party, it can legally raise and spend far more money than the IDC can under election law. In other words, this new arrangement allows the IDC to take in larger sums and transfer money directly to its members’ political campaigns since it is now able to operate under the same rules as the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

But can they? Court filings show that the Board of Elections Chief Enforcement Counsel, Risa Sugarman, filed a lawsuit looking into this in the fall of 2017, as originally reported by Politico New York. The lawsuit asks for a judge to prohibit the unlimited money transfers from the two campaign accounts to IDC members. It further requests a freeze on all donations to, and all expenditures made by, both IDC committees. Sugarman’s complaint highlights that election law unequivocally requires that party officers of committees, such as Klein, be enrolled members of said party. So, given that Klein is a member of the Democratic Party and not the Independence Party, it’s a problem. Going into 2018, this could kneecap the IDC. And that is probably a good thing.

What’s Next for the IDC?

As an aside, the Independence Party endorsed Andrew Cuomo for reelection last December, as they did previously in both 2010 and 2016. Needless to say, the quid pro quo between them has been clear, as Cuomo has never stayed on the sidelines in regard to the IDC and their machinations.

Cynthia Nixon and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The IDC has created an opening for progressive Democrat Cynthia Nixon to challenge Cuomo. (Nixon Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Cuomo Photo: MTA New York City Transit/Marc A. Hermann)

Now that may finally be changing. Cuomo appears to be caving to pressure because he has now asked the IDC to disband. On April 3, 2018, he officially announced that the IDC would close shop, paving the way for reunification of the New York Democratic Party. We shall watch this development for authenticity as Cuomo is likely to pay a political price for supporting them in the first place. Cynthia Nixon, who has mounted a primary challenge from the left, may well defeat him yet.

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