‘These are not usual days’: Cuomo urges senator to rejoin Democrats

Governor sends strongly worded letter to Sen. Simcha Felder, the lone legislator preventing Democrats from regaining control of the state Senate
Democratic State Senator Simcha Felder at his office in Albany, N.Y., April 25, 2018.
Democratic State Senator Simcha Felder at his office in Albany, N.Y., April 25, 2018.

ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday sent a strongly worded letter to Sen. Simcha Felder, the lone legislator preventing Democrats from regaining control of the state Senate, warning that his unique influence in Albany might not last past the November elections.

“Let me say that the Democratic conference will not need you in November the way they need you now,” the governor wrote. “I believe there will be additional Democrats who win and are seated for the next Legislature. You have said that you act in the best interest of your constituents. For their benefit, now is the time that matters.”

Felder, a Democrat who represents a large Orthodox Jewish population in Brooklyn, has long embodied some of the perplexing horse-trading and politicking that are hallmarks of Albany. Because he caucuses with the Republicans, Felder has helped to give the Senate Republicans control of the chamber, even though the Democrats now hold a majority on paper.

Felder, who crossed party lines just days after he was elected in 2012, was not the only Democrat to stray. The Independent Democratic Conference, a group of renegade Democrats who collaborated with the Republicans, also helped to wrest control from the mainline Democrats.

But earlier this month, the IDC, in a deal announced by Cuomo, agreed to dissolve their coalition with the Republicans. And on Tuesday night, two more Democrats joined the ranks of the Senate, after winning special elections in Westchester County and the Bronx.

That left Felder as the lone remaining barrier to 32 Democratic votes in the Senate — the magic number needed for the group to take back the majority in the 63-member chamber.

On Tuesday, before the polls had closed, Felder had already announced his intention to remain allied with the Republicans, at least for now, citing a desire to “prevent an unprecedented and uncertain late-session political battle.” A Democratic takeover of the Senate now could set up a legal battle as well as open questions of how to allocate funding and staff for the final weeks of the session, which ends in June.

Cuomo’s office had vowed not to take no for an answer.

“Usually an executive is warned to avoid ‘interference’ with the legislative branch of government,” the governor wrote. “Through the years, governors have been criticized for meddling with Senate or Assembly leadership decisions as it violated the separation of powers policy,” read the letter. “These are not usual days.”

Cuomo beseeched Felder to avoid a “wasted opportunity to move the state forward.”

The governor also highlighted the changing political climate, both in New York and nationwide: Felder’s vote was now “pivotal,” given the outcome of the special elections, Cuomo said, in helping the state enact progressive legislation that the Republicans had blocked.

“In this state, Democrats are no longer about just offering dreams but a party of dreamers and doers — a powerful combination,” he said.

He also invoked the federal administration in Washington, which he said had demonstrated an “anti-New York attitude, philosophy and agenda.”

“We can change New York for the better and protect our state from adverse federal action,” he wrote, citing currently stalled measures such as the DREAM Act, the Child Victims Act and gun control.

At a news conference in Manhattan on Wednesday, Cuomo said Felder would be single-handedly responsible for blocking those reforms if he did not return to the Democratic fold.

“Otherwise, for 25 days, nothing will happen, and these reforms won’t happen,” Cuomo said. “And that’s — it’s all on him.”

Felder was noncommittal when asked about the governor’s letter. “I look forward to productive conversations with the governor and respect his position,” he said Wednesday.

Felder is keenly aware of the leverage his unique position gives him in Albany, and he has used it to great effect, from leading the effort to kill a 5-cent fee on plastic bags in New York City, to holding up the state budget over the issue of oversight of yeshivas.

Last week, on the Legislature’s first day back in session after the dissolution of the IDC, Felder jokingly highlighted his power on the Senate floor.

“Don’t mess with me,” he called out at one point. “I’m the new IDC.”

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