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Leader of breakaway Democrats in State Senate says group will remain independent

ALBANY – For weeks the leader of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference has listened to his group of eight Senate Democrats get pounded for being disloyal to the Democratic Party.

Today Sen. Jeff Klein fired back at critics for spreading distortions as part of a “misinformation campaign.’’

Klein, the Bronx Democrat who sits at the negotiating table with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and two other legislative leaders on top fiscal and policy matters, called on changes in the leadership in the group of mainline Democrats that has been battling with his group known as the IDC.

To those who are calling for the IDC to disappear and its members to fold back into the mainline Democratic conference, Klein offered a simple message: No.

“It’s always been clear. Today, tomorrow and next year, the IDC will remain an independent conference,’’ Klein said in an interview with The Buffalo News this morning.

Ratcheting up the dispute, Klein said it’s time for the leadership resignations of Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat who heads the Democratic mainline conference, and Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and her top deputy.

Two weeks ago, Klein distributed a “Call the Roll” effort in which the IDC asked mainline Democrats to pledge support for a number of bills, including expanded abortion rights protections, public campaign finance, single-payer health care, college tuition assistance for the children of undocumented immigrants and contraceptive insurance mandates.

In the two weeks since, Klein said none of the mainline Democrats have signed onto the effort.

“Unless the present leadership structure in the Democratic conference changes, it’s going to be impossible for Democrats to unite around these kinds of issues,’’ Klein said.

The internecine Senate Democratic brouhaha has been on, off, on, off and, more recently, back on again. Following a special election win in a Harlem seat, the Democrats – with three various factions all counted together – have a numerical edge, 32-31, in Senate.

The IDC has been under attack all session, indeed for much of the past several years, by mainline Democrats in the Senate for their breakup and then cozying with the Senate GOP to help keep the Republicans in power. Simcha Felder, not a part of any of the groups, does conference with the GOP that gives Republicans the 32 votes needed for the GOP to maintain control.

Breakaway Democrats decide to stick with GOP in New York State Senate

But even Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, recently urged the IDC to “unconditionally” return to the group of main Democrats. If that happened, he would break off his alliance with the GOP, giving the Democrats control of both legislative houses, the governor’s office and the other statewide posts of lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller.

Recently, pressure has mounted on the IDC from beyond just fellow Democrats in the Senate and the liberal Working Families Party. Democratic members of the state’s House of Representatives delegation in Washington added their voice to a unified Democratic Senate. They have been joined, according to at least one media account, by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the state’s junior Democratic senator.

Cuomo, however, has been both publicly cool and lukewarm over the years to the idea of an all-Democratic Senate. He has pointed out repeatedly the troubles that arose when Democrats took over the Senate for some part of two years in 2009 and how the current arrangement with the Senate GOP and IDC – upon which Cuomo has heaped much praise – has worked well in terms of getting his fiscal and policy agenda through over the years.

Last week, Cuomo said it would be “optimal” if the Senate Democrats unified, though he has not expended much political energy – at least publicly – to make it happen. Cuomo controls the state’s Democratic Party.

Klein called the governor “a great partner,’’ but Klein said the two discuss only policy matters, not internal Senate Democratic matters.

Klein said if Democrats think they want to unite members of the Senate they first have to unite on key issues facing the party at a time of growing disputes between the state and Republicans, including President Trump, in Washington.

But that has not happened with the litmus test the IDC provided the Senate Democrats.

“It’s failed leadership on the part of Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Mike Gianaris that hides behind this so-called progressive agenda. They have no intention of marshaling votes to get things done,’’ Klein said.

“We need to unify Democrats, but we need to unify 32 Democrats around issues that matter,’’ Klein added. “To just jump up and down and say we have 32 Democrats and that’s all that matters, no, it’s the issues that matter.’’

A spokesman for the mainline group of Senate Democrats dismissed Klein's criticism.

"Senator Klein is obviously lashing out due to the tremendous amount of pressure from so many Democratic leaders including the DNC leadership, the entire New York Democratic Congressional Delegation, (U.S.) Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, numerous Democratic County Leaders, and Democratic activists across the state. The last person we would take advice from on this issue is someone who has explicitly stated his goal is to keep the Republicans in charge of the Senate,'' said Mike Murphy, the spokesman for the Senate Democrats.

"If Senator Klein wants to have a say on who should lead the Democratic Conference we call on him to rejoin the Democratic Conference and ‘call the roll,' '' Murphy added.

Klein mocked the campaign against the IDC. He noted he encountered three protesters at a Bronx farmers market in his district. One was the local head of the Workings Families Party – “so he’s not a Democrat,’’ Klein said – and the other two were from the East Village in Manhattan, far from Klein’s district.

“It’s a phony grassroots effort,’’ Klein said.

The IDC leader added: “The IDC is going to remain a separate conference regardless of what anyone in the outside world says or believes.’’ If other Democrats want to “coalesce” around issues, Klein said, “I’m all ears.’’

Klein said his group of eight has gotten a number of progressive policies through the Senate this year already in the April budget, including raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old and added money for immigration services. But he said more issues need to get done and need all Democrats to support them.

“People are angry and afraid and rightfully so. Trump has the potential to do a lot of damage to policies and programs that Democrats hold near and dear,’’ Klein said.

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