Wayward Democrats return but are still under fire

For the Democratic Party, it was the end of a dubious era in Albany, where the defections were held up as further proof of the Capitol’s reputation for dysfunction and self-interest.

Wayward Democrats return but are still under fire

For six years, an ever-flexible number of Democratic state senators — sometimes five, sometimes nine, sometimes just one — gained notoriety and power by defecting from their party to work with the Republicans. Those defections helped the Republicans stay in power, despite sometimes holding a numerical minority.

Last week, the last rogue Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, rejoined the Democratic fold, bringing all the Senate’s registered Democrats into one conference for the first time since 2013. With Felder’s re-entry, the Democrats now control 40 seats in the Senate — two short of a supermajority.

For the Democratic Party, it was the end of a dubious era in Albany, where the defections were held up as further proof of the Capitol’s reputation for dysfunction and self-interest.

It was also another step toward dominance for the state’s Democrats, who swept into power in both legislative chambers last year.

But for the defectors, homecoming has largely spelled the opposite: a precipitous fall from power, after a bruising 2018 campaign in which their colleagues called them traitors, snakes and Trump Democrats.

Six of the nine breakaway senators were kicked out of office last year, after progressive primary challengers cast them as false Democrats; all but Felder had joined the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of senators who formed their own group and collaborated with the Republicans.

Of the three who survived, one was relegated last year to leading a subcommittee, even as new members were tapped to helm powerful committees. Felder was left isolated — sitting at the end of a row, at the back of the chamber — for the entirety of this year’s session, after leaving the Republican conference but being rejected by the Democrats.

Progressive activists have already promised to once again support primary challenges against the three: Felder, David Carlucci and Diane Savino. During the session, progressive activists urged the Democratic leadership to punish Savino, Carlucci and Felder after they held onto their seats.

Though the leadership did not respond to that request, Savino’s assignment to lead a subcommittee on internet and technology was widely interpreted as a snub. (The subcommittee was later expanded into a full committee.)

Savino brushed off the idea of residual tension.

“I never take this business personally,” said Savino, who represents parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn.

“This year we may be on opposite sides, and next year we might be solid allies. For those who want to continue to carry on a campaign that they already won, that’s their problem.”

She added that she did not consider her committee assignment retribution. “The problem for Senator Stewart-Cousins is she has too many members and not as many committees,” she said, referring to the Senate Democrats’ leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

Yet there have been some indications of awkwardness or lingering hard feelings. In late November, after the unexpected death of former Sen. Jose Peralta, an IDC member who was unseated in the primary, Savino wrote on Twitter that Peralta had “paid the price on Primary Day” for standing up for his district.

She attacked people who she said had let Peralta be “vilified” in the “winner-take-all game of politics,” adding an expletive.

In addition, some of the primary challengers who defeated IDC candidates last year have continued to revisit those victories as new lawmakers, citing them as proof of a mandate to take the state even further left.

Still, for lawmakers who were once courted by leaders in both parties, juggling stipends and titles that were offered as enticements, the former breakaway politicians appear to be remarkably sanguine about their new positions in Albany.

“It’s been seamless,” said Carlucci, who rejoined the mainline Democrats last year after five years as a member of the IDC. “It’s been a very respectful situation, where I think I’ve gained friends, particularly in the new 15 members.”

Carlucci, who represents parts of Rockland and Westchester counties, called the past rift “water under the bridge.”

Felder occupied a somewhat unique position. He was not a member of the IDC, but instead broke away on his own to conference with the Republicans.

After the IDC rejoined the mainline conference last year, before the primary elections, Felder was the lone holdout preventing a Democratic majority — and he chose to stick with the Republicans.

After the Republicans fell from power last year, Felder tried to make amends with his Democratic colleagues. He was rebuffed. For all of this year’s session, he was removed from any committee assignments and sat alone — and usually silent — in the Senate chamber.

On Monday, Stewart-Cousins announced that his time in the penalty box was over.

“At the start of this past session, I made clear that we wanted to begin with the 39 senators who were committed to being members of our conference, but that we were open to growing if other senators displayed a desire to advance our Democratic agenda,” she said in a statement, which was reported by State of Politics.

Stewart-Cousins made clear that Felder had earned his spot in the conference by voting for bills including driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and new tenant protections.

Those votes also show that the former rogue senators’ influence, though diminished, has not vanished entirely.

Felder’s vote for the driver’s license bill, for example, allowed the Democrats to pass it with 33 votes — just one more than was needed, after several Democrats from suburban districts voted against the hotly debated proposal. Carlucci, who represents a suburban area, and Savino, from Staten Island, also voted for it.

Carlucci was also allowed to sponsor several high-profile bills this year, including two on voting reforms.

Even ousted senators seem to have found somewhat soft landings. Jeffrey Klein, the former head of the IDC, is now a lobbyist at Mercury, a well-known firm — a source of outrage to some women’s rights activists, after he was accused in 2017 of forcibly kissing a staffer.

Jesse Hamilton, also an ex-IDC member, spent more than $3,700 of his campaign funds on lease payments for a Mercedes-Benz sedan after his loss, The New York Post reported.

Felder, for his part, seemed unfazed by his prodigal son status.

“I don’t believe in the political parties: I try to be faithful to God, my wife, and my constituents,” Felder said in an interview last Monday. “And clearly my positions don’t fit neatly in a party box.”

Felder had always defended his defection by pointing to his district in Brooklyn, which has a sizable population of Orthodox Jews, and which he said benefited more from his collaboration with the Republicans.

Presumably, they will now benefit from his membership in the Democratic majority.

“You may not like what I’m doing,” Felder said. “But I’m certainly not fooling around.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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