ALBANY — Even by the sometimes funhouse-mirror standards of the state capital, the current battle between Charlie King and some of his fellow Democrats seems truly bizarre. Unless, of course, it makes perfect sense.
For those happily unaware of the byzantine workings of Albany, King is a former executive director of the New York state Democratic Party and a former senior campaign adviser to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state’s top Democrat.
For the last few weeks, Cuomo, a centrist who has worked closely with Republicans in Albany, has been under fire from Senate Democrats who feel the governor should be taking a larger role in unifying his party to assert control in the state Senate.
The topic is a sore one for many party loyalists because Democrats hold a numerical advantage in the 63-seat chamber, but remain in the minority because of eight renegade Democrats who have chosen to align with the Grand Old Party, including Simcha Felder, D-Brooklyn, who recently reaffirmed that position.
The other seven are members of the Independent Democratic Conference, led by Jeffrey D. Klein, whose partnership with the Republicans has now extended to four years — affording Klein a central role in Albany’s high-level meetings and enhanced influence for his allies.
Cuomo has not responded to the calls for unity. But over the last several days, King has gone on the offensive, often in ways that were both comic and caustic. He attacked Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate Democratic leader, for a lack of leadership, but also asserted that a veteran Democratic senator from the Bronx, Rubén Díaz Sr., who aligns with Stewart-Cousins, is a conservative who has “been around since the Lincoln administration.”
“If Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins is a leader,” opined King, “now is the time to lead.”
The reason for King’s piquant pronouncements remained a mystery, though suspicions of a connection between the invective and the governor’s intentions ran high in Stewart-Cousins’ camp, in part because of the two men’s past relationships. They also pointed out that King is employed as an executive at a high-powered lobbying firm, Mercury Public Affairs, that has done work on behalf of causes supported by Senate Republicans, who oppose a unified Democratic front.
The Senate Republicans declined to comment on King’s opinions. On Díaz’s Senate website, he posted an article Tuesday arguing that he was “a better Democrat than most of them.”
But the lobbyist’s odd campaign continued on Wednesday. King suddenly announced that he would hold a news conference outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office to unveil proposals to unify Democrats in the Senate, confronting a group of protesters who planned to rally there asking for the exact same thing.
The governor’s office denied that it had anything to do with King’s advocacy. “The first we heard of Charlie King’s event was when the advisory for it was released to the media,” said Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor. Another denial came from a representative of the Independent Democratic Conference.
For his part, King said his one-man crusade was not coordinated with anybody, mentioning at the news conference that he had not talked to the governor’s office before telling a reporter that he only ever met Klein in the bathrooms of the Capitol.
Rather, he said, he had taken it on himself to try to convince Stewart-Cousins to “look inward” for answers, rather than to the governor.
“If this is an exercise in true unification, then let’s have at it,” King said in a phone interview. “If it’s something else, to embarrass the governor or some other agenda, and it’s just play-pretend, then let’s go on to do something more meaningful.”
Stewart-Cousins said that sort of introspection was already well on its way in Democratic ranks; indeed, the Senate Democrats she leads were at a retreat in suburban Albany on Wednesday.
“I don’t know why Charlie has a big opinion about any of these things,” she said in an interview, adding: “My conversation has not been with Charlie; it’s not about Charlie. It’s about moving forward with the Dems in the majority.”
Stewart-Cousins also reiterated her call for Cuomo to persuade Felder and the independent Democrats to reunite. “I think the governor would be helpful in helping to engage the parties,” she said.
The groups that had rallied at the governor’s office also seemed confused by the day’s events.
“It’s no surprise that someone whose firm has worked hard to keep Republicans in power in New York’s state Senate would try to block efforts to unite Democrats,” said Javier H. Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road Action. “But these antics don’t change the facts: Working families across New York are clamoring for progressive leadership in Albany.”
King said his actions were not related to Mercury’s work on behalf of Republican-backed causes (though the releases had come from Mercury email accounts) or as a proxy for any officeholder. “I believe very deeply in what I’m saying,” he said. He also said he believed the governor would probably be happy that “I’m setting the record straight.”
“I think,” said King, “he’s probably very pleased.”
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