Politics in Albany is often opaque, but it is rarely boring.
There are always several dynamics in play. Longtime observers can readily point to the ever-present “upstate-downstate” divide; the competing priorities of urban centers and older suburbs with rural areas, newer suburbs and exurbs, whether it be over their schools, infrastructure needs, economics or state-imposed mandates; the divergent interests of Wall Street (literally, in our case) and Main Street.
Interwoven are the omnipresent fundamentals of rich and poor, progressivity and tradition, race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.
All the criticism that Albany draws is not undeserved nor without justification. Yet, when one takes stock of the challenges to representing and governing posed by this state’s staggering degree of diversity, it would not be unreasonable to wonder how it ever manages to work at all.
Focus on senate
Democrats retain a veto-proof majority in the Assembly, so today’s political science lesson is focused on the state Legislature’s upper house.
It appears that the 2011 elections have left us with 32 senators elected as Republicans and 31 elected as Democrats. However, appearances may deceive.
The 46th senatorial district election has been decided in the Republican candidate’s favor by 37 votes, and a state Supreme Court judge’s decision on which votes should count and which shouldn’t is being appealed.
Another new senator elected in Brooklyn as a Democrat has stated his intention to caucus with the Republicans, for a potential two-vote majority for the latter if it turns out he also consistently votes with them.
And then there’s the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC).
Four Democratic Party senators led by Jeffrey Klein, a former deputy minority leader in the Senate, first broke away from the mainline Democratic Party caucus in January 2011, largely in reaction to the all-too-evident dysfunction within both their own party and the Senate itself during the infamous 2009 legislative session. They made it a point to publicly emphasize their independence and used it to gain favorable treatment from the eventual Republican majority for some of their priorities.
Given the precarious nature of that majority in a nearly evenly split Senate the last two years, they were accorded a degree of working respect and inclusion they would not have otherwise had.
After the 2012 election, when it remained unclear which party would hold a majority in the 2013 session, the IDC added a fifth member and announced a coalition agreement with the Republicans in which the two would share leadership, agenda-setting authority, and committee chair responsibilities.
More significantly, the IDC gained formal acknowledgment of its independent status as a governing partner in the Senate chamber. It has effectively acquired the trappings of a third political party, even though it publicly disavows that characterization.
A British Model?
It is this emergence of the IDC as an apparently persistent third force in the state Senate that yields the impression that a form of European coalition politics is being introduced into the New York Legislature.
After the 2010 parliamentary elections in Great Britain, the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties entered into a coalition agreement that consigned the Labor Party to minority status.
Like the IDC, the “LibDems” hold far fewer seats than the two major parties but find themselves strategically positioned between the two.
Like the LibDems’ philosophical affinity for most Labor positions, the IDC is more ideologically compatible with the Democrats. Yet both have opted to align with the less-intuitive option to ostensibly formulate a more stable governing majority.
However, there are important factors that argue against making too much of this Eurocentric perception. Personal political ambition can be said to be the motivation behind the IDC as much as any philosophical dispute over leadership and policy. Also, the LibDems have a much longer and consistent pedigree than the IDC.
Furthermore, both coalitions at their core are merely marriages of convenience, which implies that they will remain stable and survive only as long as circumstances perpetuate that convenience.
Renewal, Not stagnation
Nonetheless, at the very least, the emergence of the IDC could demonstrate the capacity for New York politics and governance to re-create and renew itself in response to the head-spinning dynamics of the state’s demanding diversity.
For decades, two minor state political parties — the Liberals and the Conservatives — smartly leveraged the state’s rare “electoral fusion” laws that allowed candidates to be nominated by more than one party and aggregate votes from more than one ballot line.
This extra ballot line often proved a crucial advantage for candidates in competitive elections, which in turn granted those third parties an ability to “punch above their weight” through strategic endorsements of major-party candidates.
However, that leverage also was largely a product of the strong personalities at the helm of the Liberals and Conservatives and has waned with their departure from the scene. The third parties that remain or have replaced them have not recently displayed nearly the same acuity in leveraging fusion voting.
Perhaps the emergence of the IDC in the Senate represents another evolutionary step in the creation of alternate paths of influence within the historic two-party system.
Or maybe it’s just another manifestation of the fractious nature of the Democratic Party, which defines the term “big tent” and, therefore, has never been as cohesive and homogeneous as the Republican Party. This is one key reason why, historically, the Republican Party — with which far fewer state voters identify — has remained electorally competitive.
For his part, the governor has stated that he will work with anyone — Democrat, Republican or IDC — dedicated to supporting his “progressive agenda for the state.”
Spoken like a man with a 74 percent public approval rating.
John Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.