Democrats who side with GOP give Cuomo a 2018 headache

It’s an alliance that has threatened his own popularity with New York liberals, national progressives
Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the state Capitol in Albany on April 5, 2017.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the state Capitol in Albany on April 5, 2017.

ALBANY — It had not even been a week since the Democratic Party scored wins across New York on Election Day, and already pressure was building.

What was Gov. Andrew Cuomo going to do about the eight rogue Democrats who collaborate with Republicans to help give that party control of the state Senate?

It’s an alliance that has threatened Cuomo’s own popularity with New York liberals and national progressives, which are demanding that he broker an accord between the warring Democratic factions to give the party full control over one of the nation’s biggest and bluest states.

And it is clear that efforts to dismantle the so-called Independent Democratic Conference — either forcing its eight members to rejoin the mainline Democrats, or attempting to defeat them in primaries next year — are building, and with them pressure on the governor.

On Sunday, the leader of the mainstream Democrats, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, pointedly held an event in the Bronx district of the leader of the IDC, Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein.

On Monday, Cuomo’s new pick as executive director of the state Democratic Party, Geoff Berman, went to Harlem for a town-hall meeting and heard an earful of frustrations about the IDC from attendees.

And on Tuesday, a coalition of liberal groups began organizing phone banks to identify voters in the districts of the eight breakaway Democrats who pledge to support only candidates who will caucus with the mainline party.

“We can’t afford another budget cycle with Republicans in power,” said Bill Lipton, state director of the Working Families Party, and one of the organizers of the campaign, which they are calling #NoTrumpDemocrats.

Cuomo has insisted he is not at fault for the constant infighting between fractious Democrats, or truly responsible for reuniting them, suggesting personal animus and professional ambition by the two sides were thwarting a deal.

“I’ve said repeatedly there should be Democratic unity; the two sides should check their egos at the door and unify,” Cuomo said the day after the election, adding: “For the IDC to go back to the conference, the Senate Democratic Conference, they both have to want to do it.”

Despite Cuomo’s remarks, many activists nevertheless blame the governor — who is not shy about using his considerable clout and political skills when he needs to — for failing to find a solution to a intraparty split, one that dates almost precisely to the beginning of Cuomo’s first term in 2011 and has allowed him to rule the state from the political center.

“We all believe that it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Cuomo’s encouraging it to exist,” said Arthur Z. Schwartz, the treasurer for the New York Progressive Action Network.

The governor’s office flatly rejects the idea that the governor gains anything from Democratic dysfunction. They tout the “unprecedented social and economic progress” during his nearly seven years in office, and cite his push to legalize same-sex marriage, increase the minimum wage, establish paid family leave and raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. But groups like Schwartz’s — which are generally small, with a few dozen active members — have still managed to amplify their message of dissatisfaction in recent months with protests, online advertising and collaboration with other grass-roots groups.

Cuomo and his surrogates have placed a large part of the blame for the fissure in Democratic ranks on Michael N. Gianaris, the deputy leader of the mainstream Democrats, who count 23 members in their ranks. Gianaris, a state senator from Queens, has been outspoken in criticism of the IDC, and is generally known to not get along with Klein.

On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Cuomo, Dani Lever, pushed back hard on the idea that the troubles among Democrats has anything to do with her boss.

“The governor has been very forceful both publicly and privately and believes both sides will pay a hefty political price if they don’t put their egos aside,” Lever said. “If it doesn’t end now, the IDC will be seen as disloyal Democrats and opposed in primaries, and the conference leadership will have once again failed the Democratic Party by refusing to put their agendas aside and unify the conference.”

Lever also noted that mainstream Democrats would also need Sen. Simcha Felder — a Brooklyn Democrat who is not a member of the IDC, but conferences with the Republicans — to reunite to achieve a 32-seat majority. “Simcha Felder will have to be forced to decide if he is a Democrat or a Republican,” she said. “Because he can’t run as both.”

Mike Murphy, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic Conference, said that his group’s agenda was “simply to reunite Democrats so we have a functioning majority that works together.”

For its part, the IDC has steadfastly refused calls to reunite, citing its record of accomplishment as an independent faction, and chafing at suggestions that its alliance with Republicans has made its members friends of President Donald Trump.

“We are Democrats and will continue to focus our energies on electing Democrats,” said Candice Giove, a spokeswoman for the group. “If groups like the Working Families Party, Progressive Action and the Democratic Senate Committee spent as much time robocalling Republicans, they would have more success.”

How much such a division will hurt the governor is hard to say. Several Democrats have been mentioned as possible primary challengers to Cuomo, including a former state senator, Terry Gipson; a New York City councilman, Jumaane Williams; the outgoing Syracuse mayor, Stephanie Miner; and even actress Cynthia Nixon. None, however, has formally declared.

To be sure, Cuomo will face other challenges, both political and practical, including an ever growing budget deficit — predicted to be at least $1.7 billion — and the looming corruption trials of several former aides and associates.

On the Republican side, meanwhile, the defeat of Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive was seen as a positive portent for the governor; Astorino had unsuccessfully challenged Cuomo in 2014, but was seen as a possible contender next year as well. Two other possible Republican candidates — Harry Wilson, a corporate turnaround expert, and Brian Kolb, the minority leader in the state Assembly — said this week that they would decide whether to run before Christmas. Another state lawmaker, Sen. John DeFrancisco, is also mulling a challenge to Cuomo.

Still, while Republican elders, like Edward F. Cox, the state party chairman, are convinced that they can compete — “People are feeling good,” he said — some Republican strategists aren’t so sure about 2018.

“It should have been a good year for Republicans,” said William F.B. O’Reilly, a Republican consultant who worked on the Astorino campaign in 2014, noting the difficulties of third-term re-election efforts and the looming corruption trials. “But it’s all negated by Donald Trump in the White House.”

In the Bronx on Sunday, Stewart-Cousins, appeared at an anti-IDC rally at Lehman College and, while she didn’t mention Cuomo by name, she noted that elected Democrats “should stay true to their values.”

Such talk was welcomed by an overflow crowd, many of whom seemingly believe that Democratic unity should be brokered by the man who leads the party.

“If Cuomo wanted this to be over,” Lisa DellAquila, one of the leaders of True Blue, a grass-roots anti-IDC group said in an interview, “it would be over.”

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