It was an amusing spectacle for anyone well-acquainted with the bewildering nature of New York State politics. A slew of heavyweight Democrats clustered together next to a statue of Harriet Tubman in Harlem to demand that one of their Democratic own, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, finally become the majority leader of the state senate.
The rally on Monday, organized by Harlem’s new state senator, Brian Benjamin, was held in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a racial remark made by a man who might be New York’s most influential donor, the billionaire investor Daniel Loeb. The politicians and various activists took turns assailing Loeb — who had said in a Facebook comment that the African American Stewart-Cousins was doing more harm to children of color than the KKK because she is an opponent of the expansion of charter schools (Loeb later apologized and deleted the post) — and also decried a group of Democrats who have spent more than four years sharing the majority in the state senate with the GOP.
The hot afternoon on West 122nd Street was illuminating for a few reasons. For one, it brought together some big names in New York politics — Charlie Rangel, Hakeem Jeffries, Letitia James, Scott Stringer, Adriano Espaillat, and Yvette Clarke — who could all agree that the Independent Democratic Conference, the rogue group of eight Democrats who help Republicans control the state senate, needed to end its dubious power-sharing alliance.
Espaillat, a congressman and former state senator, now thinks the IDC should form a Democratic majority, though just last year he laid much of his political capital on the line to elect a Manhattan IDC member, Marisol Alcantara, who has supported keeping Republicans in power. James, working up similar outrage yesterday, happily endorsed Alcantara last year. And one of the rally’s more fiery speakers, Kirsten John Foy of the National Action Network, this year defended a Brooklyn Democrat who jumped to the IDC.
Adding to the political whiplash, Calvin Butts, the powerful Harlem pastor who thought about running for mayor as a Republican and once spurned a black Democratic nominee to endorse Michael Bloomberg for a third term, delivered a prayer at the start of the rally.
For the few self-identified progressives left who believe the IDC is needed in New York, it’s worth thinking about why Loeb, primarily a donor to national Republicans, wants them to exist in the first place. As long as a rogue conference of Democrats can keep suburban and upstate Republicans in power, left-wing priorities that are the bane of Loeb’s set — single-payer healthcare, more funding for public schools, significantly stronger tenant protections — can’t come to fruition. The Republican Party is dying in New York, but the IDC is its crutch. Someone like Loeb, out of step with the leftward march of the state, needs the IDC to retain his influence.
Standing in the crowd of pols, looking smart in a red tie and crisp suit, was Alphonso David, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chief counsel. David, who is black, was there to show solidarity for Stewart-Cousins, and got a nice shout-out.
Watching David there, a smile frozen on his face, you had to wonder what was going through his mind when Stringer declared he would return a donation he received from Loeb six years ago and funnel the cash to a Democrat in Harlem running in a primary against Alcantara. Cuomo has taken some $170,000 dollars from Loeb, who has also donated $62,000 to the leader of the IDC, State Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, and the IDC’s campaign committee. Neither have any plans to return the billionaire’s cash.
Beyond Klein, the IDC mastermind and nurser of never-ending grievances, there is no one more responsible for the IDC’s existence than Cuomo. Ever wary of moving too far left, Cuomo aided the IDC’s formation in 2011 and did nothing as the group first denied Democrats the majority in 2012.
Since then, Cuomo has rarely used his massive war chest — or the coffers he controls through the New York State Democratic Party — to help senate Democrats. If the mainline Democrats, a minority conference that has struggled over the years with crafting a coherent and compelling message for voters, seem lackluster, they have been competing with a severe handicap: forced to fight multi-front wars against a moneyed Republican conference and the IDC while being undermined by Cuomo and, until recently, disinterested Democratic lawmakers.
This is where the shift is most dramatic, and why the IDC might be in trouble. Regular New York Democrats are treating support of the IDC as a litmus test of a person’s progressive credentials, something that was never true until Trump’s election. The IDC spent more than four years locking Democrats out of the majority, and enough people who matter now care. This is new.
Primaries could thin Klein’s ranks, and the loss of Republicans in next year’s elections may harm his bargaining power. Klein, though, is a survivor, and as long as Cuomo remains governor, the Bronx lawmaker will probably find a way to influence the senate as a co-leader with Stewart-Cousins. New York politics will stay weird.
But all cannot return to the way it was before, when the IDC reigned with nary a word from New York’s lame Democratic class and dodged scrutiny from the state’s most liberal voters. If people like Espaillat can be convinced to rail against the very thing they empowered, the IDC has a right to be nervous. It is a conference besieged, and that won’t change.