BRONX – Sen. Jeff Klein knows his audience, so he came armed with information catered to the few dozen constituents who gathered at a Riverdale senior citizens center in his Bronx district.
Klein told them about a state initiative for elderly renters, about a prescription drug program, about help for seniors to avoid financial exploitation and about an upcoming health screening event.
The audience had something else in mind: city streets.
What about vehicle traffic in crosswalks? What about speeding cars? What about more speed bumps or stop signs or speed cameras? And on they went, as though Klein worked for the city’s roads agency.
“I’ll take that down and contact the city Department of Transportation,’’ the state senator told one woman.
Later, over lunch at Patricia’s, his go-to restaurant for both food and political deal-making, Klein said he has gotten used to constituents who don’t differentiate among the job duties for local, federal or state officeholders.
“I’m not about to tell them I’m not a city council member and I have no control over that…They just want you to handle their local problems, which I’m happy to do. It’s part of the job. It’s easier, in some ways, than Albany where you’re dealing with a lot of different interests,’’ Klein said in between bites of his chicken Caesar hero at the Italian restaurant just around the corner from his two-story, brick house in the Italian-dominated neighborhood of Morris Park.
Klein knows those competing interests in Albany. He is leader of the five-member Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, a group that split from the mainline Democratic senators in 2011 and formed an alliance with Republican senators. In doing so, he became one of the most powerful legislators in the state.
And depending on the outcome of the elections in November, Klein could become the Senate’s ultimate power broker, especially as his independent caucus grows to an expected six members after their candidate won a September primary bid in Manhattan.
“He’s definitely going to be a player in the makeup of the Senate, no matter what happens in November, and that’s attributable to his political astuteness,’’ said Buffalo’s Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a mainline Democratic member.
After more than 20 years in the Legislature, he has accumulated a lot of power for heading just a handful of senators. Interest groups press to get on his schedule. Donors jam his fund-raisers. Rank-and-file lawmakers ask him for help with their projects. The State Police buzz him in to enter Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office for closed-door budget talks with the heads of the Senate and Assembly.
The talk is all over the board about Klein and where he and the caucus will go after November. The caucus could help the Republicans maintain Senate control, even if they emerge without a numerical majority.
Choice two: Klein could help reunite Democrats to force an all-Democratic Legislature.
Others talk of him and Senate Democratic leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins becoming co-leaders of the Senate.
Still others say Klein is politically adept enough and hungry enough, that he might want the top Senate job for himself.
“We’ll see what happens,’’ Klein said.
No matter what happens, the Independent Democrat Caucus will live.
“We’re not going anywhere. I’m very proud of it,’’ he said. “It’s not a breakaway group. It’s in the Senate rules … Moving forward, we still serve a very, very useful purpose.’’
Klein survives, adds power
When Klein led the breakaway caucus five years ago, “traitor” was the kindest of terms his fellow Democrats leveled at him. They got a rare chance in the power seat in the Senate after the 2008 elections, and Klein was one of their leaders. But the period was marked by legislative and political chaos, not to mention corruption problems that hit other Senate Democratic leaders, like Pedro Espada and Malcolm Smith.
Klein was not an outsider. He ran the mainline Senate Democratic campaign operation in 2010. But the discord in the Senate Democratic conference was deep, ugly and personal, and Klein had enemies from within. The marriage formally ended soon after election day.
Klein and three other senators bolted the main conference to form the IDC, saying they were tired of the dysfunction. To his critics, it meant cutting a deal with the devil: Senate Republicans.
Its five members today hail from New York City, Rockland County and Madison County, and the members include Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat who came out of the labor movement and with whom Klein has been romantically involved for several years.
“We could have fallen flat on our face and the Republicans could have said, ‘Hey, you’re on your own,’’’ he said.
That didn’t happen, and Klein has struck understandings with two different Senate GOP leaders: Dean Skelos, convicted last year on corruption charges, and John Flanagan, the current GOP leader.
“The only thing that sometimes annoys me is when people deal with an untrue narrative and say, ‘Oh, he put the Republicans in charge,’” Klein said. “No, we have a coalition. It can be said that the Republicans empowered me. We had five members, and we will have six, and we’ve gotten a lot of things done.”
Pigeon racing to fishing trips
If Klein, 56, has staked out some different paths on his road to influence in Albany, perhaps his childhood offers some early glimpses.
In Morris Park, he and his parents were the only Jewish family on the block. They lived in a two-family home owned by his grandfather, who was a tool and die maker. Klein’s grandparents emigrated from Hungary and Poland.
Klein’s father, Howard, who owned a used machinery shop, had a good friend, who introduced his son to pigeon racing at about the age of 13. The family friend gave him four breeder pigeons and, within a year or so, there were 100 pigeons housed in a handmade coup in the family’s backyard on Hone Avenue, located just a few minutes’ walk from Klein’s current home.
To race, the pigeons were taken miles from home – sometimes 100 miles - and let loose to find their way back to his Bronx neighborhood.
“I gave it up when I discovered girls,’’ Klein said.
Klein is an avid reader, especially of history, and is a serious fan of gangster movies – 1930s and 1940s films with James Cagney and George Raft.
“It’s the quality of the movies and the history at the time,’’ he said.
Touch on his fishing hobby, and Klein opens his phone and scrolls to a recent photo of him standing with a 46-pound striped bass he says he caught off Montauk Point at the tip of Long Island.
“It’s the only thing I’ve done consistently throughout my life,’’ he said of fishing, which he took up at age five.
Klein said he became interested in politics during a junior high field trip to Philadelphia.
He graduated from City University of New York Law School, and did private practice law work. He also worked for a couple of congressmen. Then in 1994, he was elected to the state Assembly. His first bill signed into law: mandating labels on poultry sold as kosher.
Five years later, he was among the lawmakers who helped then Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver beat back a coup attempt. But during his 2004 bid for his Bronx Senate seat, Klein recalled Silver refused a request to help his campaign. He said Silver told him he didn’t want to cross the Albany line of an Assembly leader getting involved in a Senate race.
Klein won that race for the seat without Silver’s help.
Wooed by GOP, Democrats
If Klein was a pariah among Senate Democrats after forming the independent caucus, the harsh condemnations have largely fizzled. Democrats know that they will need Klein and his caucus if they are to return to power.
“Whatever happened to create the IDC, I believe, is in the rear view mirror, and we are prepared to work together, hopefully, as Democrats,’’ said Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat who heads the mainline group of Democrats.
What does working together mean?
“I guess we would figure out a way where we could have a similar relationship that he has had with the other conference,’’ Stewart-Cousins said of the IDC’s relationship with the Senate Republicans.
Such unity talk has happened before – as recently as 2014 -- and faded. Perhaps some new warming occurred last week, when Klein and Savino met for lunch with Stewart-Cousins and Queens Democratic Sen. Michael Gianaris, head of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.
Stewart-Cousins volunteered that Klein’s breakaway occurred before she became conference leader. He volunteered that he helped raise money for her first Senate run in 2004.
Still, Klein keeps his options open. As quickly as he praised Stewart-Cousins, he pushed the conversation to his great working relationship he with Flanagan and how he’s “much more policy oriented than any Republican leader I’ve ever seen.’’
Flanagan, in an interview, returned the praise in rosy adjectives. And Klein has been able to push Republican toward his IDC’s mix of liberal and moderate stances.
Klein’s group in the spring forced Senate Republicans to the table to embrace both a minimum wage hike and a phased-in family leave plan – two measures that angered the GOP’s traditional business sector backers. It wasn’t the first time Klein moved the Senate GOP to the left, as witnessed by the Senate’s passage of legalized same sex marriage and the SAFE Act.
“They’re very progressive in some respects, but we’ve learned to govern together,’’ Flanagan said.
In Klein, the caucus has a leader especially adept at triangulating Albany: meeting the IDC’s wants and needs while understanding the differing demands of Senate Republicans, Assembly Democrats and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“He is the textbook definition of a strong leader. He has always had the interests of his members at the forefront of his mind since we formed this five years ago,’’ said Sen. David Valesky, the IDC’s sole upstater.
Klein was the first to promote paid family leave as an IDC cause, Valesky said. The group also advanced a $15 minimum wage plan, but Klein embraced a slower and lower phase in as a bow to upstate’s economy, he said. And to lure Republicans to those two plans, Klein and the IDC joined them in promoting a big middle class tax cut that Senate Republicans are promoting in this fall’s campaigns.
“We really have not only survived, but the legislative results have shown we’ve thrived as that independent, third conference in the Senate,’’ Valesky said.
Klein has patiently tried to tamp down Democratic anger about the caucus breakaway by working with mainline Democrats.
Sen. Kennedy of Buffalo speaks well of Klein, even though Klein’s caucus twice targeted him for defeat by providing money and effort to help Betty Jean Grant as recently as 2014.
But that’s all in the past, said Kennedy.
Today, Kennedy credits Klein with helping him get measures through the Senate, including money to address zombie houses in Western New York, funds for child care subsidies for several hundred local families, and a residential parking permit system for Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood. Passage of those measures would not have been possible wihtout the small, but influential IDC, Kennedy said.
For now, Klein isn’t saying what his IDC will do after next month’s elections.
“When we determine what we do as a coalition, I want to make sure we get things done. And we won’t be shy about what things need to get done,” Klein said.