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Awkward in Albany: State Senate returns with new alliances

ALBANY — At the state Capitol, power takes many forms, but it can be most simplistically on display in three ways: title, salary and size of office.

On Monday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who recently gave up his four-men-in-a-room power role in Albany as part of a unity pact by warring Senate Democrats, sat at his desk in his new office.

The walls in his new – relatively pint-sized – office were covered with nails and screws, waiting for the photographs and plaques overflowing in nearby boxes to be mounted. The room had bad lighting. One long wall was covered with dark, wood-like paneling. The carpet needed a shampoo.

Gone: his lofty title.

Reduced: If things stay as they are, he’ll take a $13,500 pay cut.

Disappeared: his sweeping views from sprawling offices in both the Capitol and Legislative Office Building across the street.

This is what unity looks like.

On his first workday back in Albany since he and his seven Independent Democratic Conference members in the Senate announced April 4 that they were ending their breakaway ways and reuniting with mainline Democrats, Klein and his scaled-down staff were still moving into his new digs in room 605 at the Legislative Office Building.

Before he started a two-week vacation after passing the state budget on March 31 with his former allies in the Senate Republican conference, Klein had all the trappings of power: big staff; entry to secret meetings with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the two other legislative leaders; a state SUV with a chauffeur; and an annual stipend of $34,000 on top of his base $79,500 pay, an amount that will drop to $20,500 in his new post as deputy minority leader.

In an interview, Klein said he did not know what the allotment for Senate staff will be.

“We’re trying to work out the details," he said. Of the number of IDC staff members who will lose their jobs as a result of his unity deal, he said, “We’re working on those things right now."

If one word can be used to describe Monday, it was awkward.

Since 2011, the breakaway IDC and mainline Democrats have been at each other’s throats. The main group of Democrats accused the IDC of disloyalty for helping prop up and keep the GOP in power. The IDC said its creation – and work over the years – helped ease partisan dysfunction.

“It was the right thing," Klein said of forming the IDC. But with Republicans in control in Washington and Senate Republicans blocking a number of Democratic-backed initiatives in Albany, Klein said the independent Democratic experiment had run its course.

Klein called Monday the “first day of unification." He gave up his co-coalition leadership title with Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and accepted the deputy minority leader title.

Senate Democrats sought to put happy faces on their fledgling unification. Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, called it an “exciting” day.

Asked about getting back together with the IDC – a group that only four years ago fought to end his Senate career with a primary challenge – Kennedy acknowledged the IDC had “put a bull’s-eye on me."

“So no one would have a better reason to hold a grudge than me. And everyone in my conference could come up with their own reason, whether it’s a political reason or it’s a personal reason, to hold a grudge. But that’s not going to help the people of the state," Kennedy said.

“We have an opportunity for Democrats to unify, and that’s what it looks like we’re doing," the Buffalo senator said.

Things were a bit unknown before session Monday afternoon. “I don’t know how it’s going to go," Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican said.

The friction between Republicans and the unified Democrats was noticeable Monday. On April 24, special elections will be held to fill two Senate vacancies. One of the seats, based in Westchester County, is in play. If the Democrats win both, they have the numerical edge in the Senate, though on Democrat – Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder – conferences with the GOP but has floated the possibility that his one-man alliance could end. Whether that happens sooner, or after the November elections, is known only to Felder.

As a coup a decade ago in the Senate proved, not everything can be predicted with certainty in the Legislature. In advance of their return to Albany for the first time since the Democratic unity pact, some Senate Republicans were curious to see if the Democrats – still in the minority – might try to pull some sort of maneuver over Senate rules on Monday.

In the end, the first session back on Monday had no drama. The Senate made official the switch of eight former IDC members back into the mainline Democratic camp.

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