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Democrats in New York state Senate appear set to reconcile

Democrats in New York state Senate appear set to reconcile

Two warring factions of Democratic lawmakers have agreed to reunite and end seven years of infighting
Democrats in New York state Senate appear set to reconcile
State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Senate Democratic conference leader, and fellow Democrats at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y.
Photographer: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

NEW YORK — Two warring factions of Democratic lawmakers have agreed to reunite and end seven years of infighting that has helped give Republicans a foothold of power in Albany in a dramatic upheaval of New York politics, according to people familiar with the deal.

An alliance in the state Senate between Republicans and a renegade of group of Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference was formed during Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s first week in office. It had since amounted to one of the oddest political arrangements in the country — and one that had become increasingly untenable in the current political climate.

Impassioned activists have called for Democrats to unite against President Donald Trump and to hold up New York as a bastion of liberalism. They have launched primaries against most of the breakaway Democratic lawmakers. And now Cuomo himself is facing a primary challenge, from actress Cynthia Nixon, who has made the bipartisan alliance in Albany a focus of her attacks on the governor’s progressive credentials.

The Democratic accord, which would dissolve the IDC, came together Tuesday over coffee and cookies at a Manhattan steakhouse.

“For the good of the party, this has to stop,” Cuomo said at the closed-door gathering, according to two people who were in the room.

Around the table sat Cuomo; the leaders of New York’s most powerful labor unions; Joseph Crowley, the top-ranked New York Democrat in the House of Representatives; and the two rival Democratic leaders of the state Senate — Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who leads the main group of Democrats, and Jeffery D. Klein, who leads the breakaway group — among others.

Cuomo asked Stewart-Cousins and Klein to reunite immediately, a faster timeline than had previously been discussed, even though the Democrats would remain in the minority in the Senate.

Under the terms outlined by Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins would become the sole Democratic leader, and Klein would become her deputy.

Klein and Stewart-Cousins shook hands, and the room erupted in applause.

They are expected to make the deal official at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Skepticism abounds, and many details, including the division of staffing and budget for a unified conference, remain unresolved. The longtime chief deputy under Stewart-Cousins, Sen. Michael N. Gianaris of Queens, who has clashed with Klein, is expected to remain in the leadership.

In the past, Klein and Gianaris have also run rival Democratic political operations, which now must be combined.

Still, the accord represents a watershed for fractious Democratic politics in the state and a political coup for Cuomo as he faces his most serious primary challenge. For years, Cuomo had said it was not in his power to arrange a “shotgun marriage” between Klein and Stewart-Cousins, but as a deal came together the governor was very much in the middle of it.

Nixon gave the governor no credit for the reunification deal and her supporters called it a sham done for political expediency. “If you’ve set your own house on fire and watched it burn for eight years, finally turning on a hose doesn’t make you a hero,” Nixon said in a statement.

Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Cuomo four years ago and is now the treasurer on Nixon’s campaign, said Cuomo’s role in the reunification amounted to a “confession of his complicity of Republican control” for the last seven years.

The deal comes less than a week after lawmakers passed a $168 billion budget — a spending plan, Teachout noted, in which Stewart-Cousins had been excluded from the negotiations, including on the state’s new sexual harassment laws.

Nixon brought up Stewart-Cousins’ exclusion from those talks during a previously taped interview on “The Wendy Williams Show” on Wednesday.

The Manhattan steakhouse meeting was about more than just the state Senate. Jefrey Pollock, a pollster for Cuomo, gave a presentation about messaging in upcoming races and the governor emphasized the need for Democratic allies to work together in 2018.

Other meeting attendees included Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa; his campaign chairman, William J. Mulrow; and Christine Quinn, vice chairwoman of the New York Democratic Party and the former New York City Council speaker.

Later on Tuesday evening, at a fundraiser for a Democratic Senate candidate in an upcoming special election, Cuomo said that “we have achieved political clarity” in watching Republican rule from Washington for the last year.

“The clarity is this: Everything we are for, they are against. It’s that simple,” he said. “The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are an antithesis one of the other.”

The candidates challenging IDC members in primaries said they would continue on, even if the Democratic Party leadership formally opposed them.

Jessica Ramos, who is running against Sen. Jose R. Peralta of Queens, said she didn’t trust the deal. “Not for a second. We’ve seen this movie before,” Ramos said.

Four years ago, Klein’s group promised to ally with the mainline Democrats but ended up not doing so.

One state senator in the mainline Democratic group, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the fragile agreement, noted that they would proceed cautiously because “we’ve been sabotaged before.”

“Let’s accept it — but sleep with one eye open,” the senator said.

The arrangement with the GOP had resulted in numerous perks for IDC members, including larger staffs and offices, and lucrative committee chairmanships that came with extra cash.

But on Wednesday, the New York State Comptroller’s Office said it would reject thousands of dollars in stipends promised to two IDC members — Diane J. Savino of Staten Island and Peralta — after it was revealed that they were being paid as Senate committee chairpeople, despite not holding those titles. (Both are vice chairs, an unpaid position.)

The rival Democratic factions had agreed last November to reunite this month, following two special elections that would bring the total number of Democrats in the 63-member chamber to 32 — the bare minimum for a majority.

But one of those senators, Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, has continued to caucus with Republicans.

Without Felder, who recently held up the state budget for concessions on how yeshivas are overseen by the state, the new Democratic coalition would still be one vote short of a majority.

In a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon, Felder reiterated — as he has often before — that he has no loyalty to either party, but rather is looking for the best deal for his district, which includes a large population of Orthodox Jews.

“I don’t feel obligated to remain with the Republicans, or obligated to join the Democrats,” Felder said. “I’m loyal to God, my wife and my constituents, and New Yorkers.”

He added that he still planned on caucusing with the GOP when the Legislature comes back into session this month, and said that he had spoken with the Republican majority leader, John J. Flanagan of Long Island, and other Republicans since news of the reunification broke.

Asked if he might join the Democrats after the special elections on April 24, he said he would “consider it at any point.”

But, he said, “I think it’s fair to say that I would have to feel a compelling reason to leave.”

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