ALBANY – In January 2011, while snacking on pizza and sodas in an Albany apartment, four State Senate Democrats put the finishing touches on a new independent caucus they vowed would help end the gridlock that had come to define the Senate.
Less than two years later, and with tallying still not done in all of the Senate's elections, the four now comprise the Independent Democratic Conference, which has overnight become arguably the most important foursome in state politics. And how they decide to cast their alliances in the coming weeks might not only determine which party controls the 63-member chamber come January, but how social and fiscal policies are shaped in New York for years to come.
"There's no secret that the four of us, like a lot of Democrats, were very disillusioned with the Democratic conference at the time. We felt we needed to move important Democratic issues that the public wanted to see passed," said Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, the group's leader.
There are at least two undetermined Senate elections from last week, but if unofficial results don't change, Democrats would have the numbers to take over the Senate – placing them in the front seat with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Democrats to shape state policies.
But the four breakaway Democrats are upsetting the mathematical equations.
Will they rejoin the main Democratic conference, a group that treated them, at best, as outcasts for two years? Or will they cross party lines to help Republicans, who have protected and wooed them, stay at least in semicontrol through some rare, coalition-type deal?
In a town of great predictability, this much is still certain: No one knows how this is going to shake out. Sources on all sides say there have been no specific negotiations yet about how a coalition might work, but Klein made certain Monday that his group is not going anywhere.
In his first interview since last Tuesday's elections, Klein offered no clue about which way the group is leaning. But he made one major vow that should send shivers up the spines of Senate Democrats.
"The only thing I'm prepared to say now is, we believe that the Independent Democratic Conference will be a permanent third conference within the New York Senate, and the Independent Democratic Conference will have a major role in shaping the policy agenda of this state," he told The Buffalo News.
Who are these breakaways?
*Klein, 54, hails from the Bronx. He represents parts of Westchester County in an economically diverse district that includes a heavy number of Italian-Americans, Jews, Irish and a mix of smaller groups with roots from Albania to Bangladesh. A lawyer with a civil litigation practice on the side, Klein is known as one of Albany's smartest political tacticians. He is poised to become a true force at the Capitol, despite blistering probes into his personal and professional life by, allies say, Senate Democrats, since he led the insurgent group's creation two years ago.
While known for his political acumen, Klein is a policy wonk and was early to call attention to foreclosure problems in New York and various senior citizen issues.
*Diane J. Savino, 48, is a straight-talking Italian-American Catholic from the north shore of Staten Island. She went from a caseworker for abused and neglected children to political operative for one of New York City's biggest municipal unions to senator representing parts of her native borough and sections of Brooklyn. Her Senate district has the highest number of union households. She and Klein, both single, have been dating for several years, and it was in her Albany apartment that the January 2011 strategy meeting occurred.
*David Carlucci, was only 29 when elected to the Senate two years ago. Carlucci, according to state records, is a licensed insurance agent, though not practicing, and married to a teacher. Representing Rockland and Orange counties, he is the group's suburban influence: He was town clerk of Clarks-town, where he still lives, a Rockland community of 80,000 people 25 miles north of New York City. His constituents include a large community of Hasidic Jews, Haitians, suburban white commuters and Hispanics.
*Then there is the upstater: David J. Valesky, 46, a onetime aide to a former Assembly majority leader who, a few years after Valesky left, led an unsuccessful coup against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan. Valesky, a former public television and radio station executive, is from Oneida, Madison County, and his new district has spread heavily into Syracuse. Also married to a teacher, Carlucci has brought the concerns of a struggling upstate economy to the agenda. His district ranges from the urban and lower-income cores of Syracuse to wealthier suburban towns to rural farm areas.
Many of the laws the four have sponsored pertain to local issues, though individual bills include a Carlucci measure promoting organ donation and a Klein bill helping food wholesalers promote New York-grown farm products. As a group, they are largely considered social progressives and released an early report showing why legalizing same-sex marriage would be good for the state's economy.
They've leaned left on some fiscal matters, such as raising the minimum wage, and on union-backed matters, but they've also issued blistering reports about wasteful state spending and how to consolidate redundant services. They pushed the property tax cap idea and expansion of DNA collection for all crime convictions.
They often vote as a bloc. But their donors – and there are lots of them, signaling a sign of how inside Albany has taken them seriously – are an interesting mix. Savino gets tens of thousands of dollars annually from labor groups.
Valesky's donors include unions, but also trade groups representing farmers, upstate manufacturers and hospitals, as well as a gun owners group and Smith & Wesson, the giant gun-maker.
They've also given money, including to fellow Senate Democrats like the $6,500 last month to Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of South Buffalo.
Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said she didn't care what the breakaway Democrats call themselves or how they define their group. "I care about how you are going to vote," she said. "Are you going to vote for Democratic principles?"
Krueger said the Democratic conference is a different place than when the party briefly controlled the Senate between 2009 and 2010 – a period of chaos and legal problems for several high-profile Democrats.
"We had some very bad apples when we walked into power in 2008. … Now the worst are gone, and there's a new group of skilled legislators, including the Independent Democratic Conference," Krueger said.
But bad feelings linger. Independent caucus allies say Senate Democrats spent more than a year trying to dig up dirt on Klein. "They tried to ‘kill' him for two years. And the great mistake in American politics is when you go out to ‘kill' someone, you ‘kill' them. They didn't ‘kill' him. In fact, they made him stronger," Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant, said of Klein.
Besides their crucial numbers, the breakaway group is helped by its upstate, suburban and New York City credentials. The four senators and their political committee have a combined $2 million in the bank, according to recent filings with the state Board of Elections, led by Klein's $890,000.
The four have backed some GOP bills, but not always. In March, Senate Democrats walked out of the chamber instead of voting on a pension reform bill pushed by Cuomo and Senate Republicans. The four breakaway Democrats remained in their seats; but they all voted no on the bill that did pass.
Senate Republicans have treated the four well, with committee chairmanships in some cases, though most would have gotten bigger paychecks if they'd stayed with the Democratic conference and gotten leadership posts that pay handsome stipends. Indeed, Klein's salary is $8,000 a year less, even with a GOP-awarded committee post. He also lost the state-issued car that came with his old deputy majority leader title.
But the biggest GOP gift came during this year's redistricting, when the Republicans, who drew the lines in the Senate, looked out for the interests of the four breakaways.
The result? Valesky, once a prime target by the GOP for defeat before he joined the breakaway group, had no Republican opponent this year. Carlucci won with 74 percent of the vote last week, Savino with 76 percent and Klein with 94 percent.
Klein said some of the taunts and political threats by fellow Democrats aimed at the group in the past two years "in some ways made us stronger." Without identifying them, he said some senators reached out about potential membership in the group. "We are very careful about who are the members," he said "… It is not for the faint of heart."