State senator tells fellow rogue Democrats to rejoin party fold

Urged to do so 'unconditionally and publicly'
State Sen. Simcha Felder during a budget hearing in Albany on Jan. 30, 2017.
State Sen. Simcha Felder during a budget hearing in Albany on Jan. 30, 2017.

ALBANY — The call for a breakaway faction of Democrats in the state Senate to abandon its Republican allies and rejoin the party’s fold has picked up a surprising supporter: Sen. Simcha Felder, D-Brooklyn, who also happens to side with the Republicans.

Felder drafted a letter Wednesday urging Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, the head of the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference, to “unconditionally and publicly rejoin the Democrats.”

The call to do so was all the more striking considering it came from Felder, who, within days of being elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 2012, declared that he would caucus with the Republicans.

RELATED: Stipend scandal fuels divide among New York’s Democratic state senators

It was unclear Wednesday whether his call for the Independent Democratic Conference to reunite with the mainline Democrats would mean that he, too, would leave the Republican conference.

Felder did not immediately return a call for comment. But his letter articulated a frustration with the tactics of the Independent Democratic Conference, which has grown in size and influence in recent months.

“Who are you to decide what the legislative priorities are for loyal Democrats across New York state?” Felder wrote, urging him to “unify with your Democrat colleagues and not just highlight a handful of issues that attempt to distinguish you from the Republican conference.”

Since 2011, Klein and the Independent Democratic Conference have collaborated with the Republicans, helping that party to rule the Senate, even though there have sometimes been more Democrats in the chamber.

With Tuesday’s election of Brian Benjamin to fill a vacant seat in Harlem, Democrats hold a numeric majority, 32-31. But the mainline Democrats hold only 23 seats, after subtracting the eight Independent Democratic Conference members and Felder.

On Monday, Klein’s group began a campaign, Call the Roll, that asked Democrats to sign a pledge to uphold “key progressive issues,” including ones that have not been embraced by their Republican colleagues, like expanding abortion rights, public campaign finance and single-payer health care. The campaign was christened with a 3 1/2-minute promotional video.

Criticism of the Independent Democratic Conference intensified after the election of President Donald Trump, and the group’s continuing partnership with Sen. John J. Flanagan, R-Long Island, who leads the Senate. Such criticisms have been given a new thrust this month as a series of articles in The New York Times revealed that three members of the Independent Democratic Conference had received tens of thousands of dollars in stipends earmarked for other lawmakers, after being falsely identified as committee chairmen in payroll documents sent by Senate staff members. Five Republicans also received the questionable stipends.

On Wednesday, the calls for unity were echoed by national Democrats, when Rep. Keith Ellison, a deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that Benjamin’s election in Harlem meant Democrats must unite to “bring together a Democratic majority in the New York state Senate.”

Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said that “Sen. Felder is a valued and trusted member of our conference,” adding that “working together we have been able to accomplish many great things.”

The Independent Democratic Conference did not have an immediate comment on Felder’s letter, which concluded by suggesting he might unify with fellow Democrats, too, if the conference did. Felder has previously said he would side with whatever party would best serve his district, which includes a large population of Orthodox Jewish residents.

“I would welcome unity if it effectuates my priority to have the greatest positive impact on my constituents,” he said, “And all New Yorkers.”

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