The Independent Democratic Caucus that shares control of the State Senate with Republicans will back Betty Jean Grant in a Democratic primary against incumbent Timothy M. Kennedy this year, providing her with manpower and fundraising ability in a race expected to gain major statewide attention.
State Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, leader of the four-person caucus that constitutes a narrow majority with the GOP, said late Saturday in Buffalo that his group will support Grant to buttress the number of senators strongly supporting abortion rights – including strengthening Roe-vs.-Wade principles in state law, as sought by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Klein emphasized that Grant has not committed to joining the IDC if elected, but said that because he views Kennedy as committed to a “pro-life” agenda means Grant, the minority leader of the County Legislature, will have access to far more campaign dollars and organization than when Kennedy beat her by a mere 156 votes in the 2012 Democratic primary.
“I’m very impressed with her,” Klein said following meetings with Grant and Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner Saturday in a Tonawanda restaurant. “She’s clearly someone who is very supportive of IDC issues like the SAFE Act and increasing the minimum wage.”
But Klein said the “key issue” is codifying the 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion into New York law – the so-called “10th point” of Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act, which has so far failed to gain the necessary 32 votes for passage in the State Senate.
“She is willing to vote to codify Roe vs. Wade and challenge Tim Kennedy as a right-to-life Democrat,” he said. “She will commit to the 10th point.”
Grant, however, denied that she has committed to the 10th point, which aims to ensure all protections of federal law in New York and is viewed as an expansion of abortion rights in the state. “I support Roe vs. Wade and a woman’s right to choose,” she said. “I have to look at the 10th point in its entirety and what it entails before I make a commitment.”
Grant also said she did not commit to Klein about joining the IDC, which has emerged as a major force – for now at least – in preventing a Democratic takeover of the Senate. She did not rule out joining with Klein and his three colleagues, but did promise to let voters know with which group she would caucus before Primary Day.
“I support them on some issues and some I don’t,” she said of the IDC. “But there is no commitment.
“First, I’ve got to elected,” she added.
Still, Klein said he felt comfortable with Grant on a host of issues, and believes she is a stronger vote in favor of abortion rights than Kennedy, whom he continually described as a “right-to-life” Democrat.
But Kennedy said late Saturday that he also supports the 10th point of the Cuomo bill, and that he voted to bring it to the Senate floor for debate and would ultimately vote for final passage. He said he supports the right to abortion, even while some label him pro-life.
“The fact that the leader of the conference that empowers Republicans is saying what he is saying, when he knows exactly where I stand, is obnoxious,” he said. “And the people of Western New York will see right through it.”
The senator also said he has always considered himself pro-choice, but eschews labels, favors some restrictions and says he falls in the “middle” on the issue. “I believe that where a woman’s health and life is at risk, that she should be able to make a decision in the best interests of her family,” he said.
Meanwhile, Democratic sources say a major battle is already brewing for a seat that could make a difference in constituting a Senate majority in 2015. The sources say Grant will be portrayed as supporting a group that has enabled continued partial control of the Legislature’s upper house by the GOP, and that Grant – an African-American woman – will be seen as opposing a Democratic conference led by Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, also an African-American woman.
The race has also drawn attention in recent weeks because of the resignation of Democratic Assemblyman Dennis H. Gabryszak, who represented the Cheektowaga portion of the district. The potential for a primary in the mainly white district could turn out votes there to counter African-American support for Grant.
It also is significant that Zellner met with Klein on Saturday, especially after Kennedy last year contributed $85,000 in his campaign funds to a fund coordinated by former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon aimed at Grant and other Democrats backed by headquarters.
“I’ve never said I will not endorse Tim Kennedy,” he said, “but what he did to the Democratic Party last summer severely damaged him in a way I don’t know how he can ask for our support.”