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State Democratic leaders to Senate independents: Unify or face primaries

ALBANY – Is this a real effort this time?

That’s the main question lingering as party leaders try to unite the warring Democratic state senators again and oust Republicans from control of the 63-member Senate.

Democratic insiders – including Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, the state Democratic Party chairman – warned the eight members of the Independent Democratic Conference that they will face primaries next fall if they do not end their alliance with Senate Republicans and sign a unification deal with the mainline Democrats.

Sen. Jeff Klein, who leads the independent Democrats, said in an interview Tuesday that the letter was “merely a political document that’s not something myself or the members of the Independent Democratic Conference can accept.’’

Klein is tight with both Cuomo and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan. He bristled at a suggestion that the unification play is already scripted with an eventual unification of Democrats already written. He said he first saw the letter from Brown and three other party insiders about the same time Monday evening that it was sent to reporters.

“It wasn’t scripted as far as we’re concerned,’’ Klein said of the Democratic letter.

Klein checked in with Flanagan before releasing the IDC response to the Democratic Party’s letter on Monday night, a Senate source said.

The letter has set off another round of speculation about who will control the Senate next March.

There is a potential court fight looming, however. Written into the Senate’s rules – put in place by Republicans after a brief takeover by Democrats in 2009 – is the “Rule of 38.’’ That requires three-fifths of senators to approve any change in the rules in mid-cycle during a two-year session. A takeover by Democrats would, effectively, result in a rule change, and that would need either 38 votes or, per the rule, have to take place after the next election for senators in November 2018.

Republicans have pointed to the rule as effectively blocking a takeover bid by Democrats. Two seats are up for special elections next March or April, and should Democrats win they would have 32 seats. That’s enough for a majority in the house, but short of the 38 votes for a rule change.

Democrats have said they believe the rules can be suspended with a simple majority vote. If it comes to that,  chaos could erupt. Or, the matter could head to court.

Cuomo said he “strongly supports” the contents of the letter demanding party unity. The governor has been under growing pressure from the left wing of the Democratic Party to use his influence to broker a unification of warring Senate Democrats.

Cuomo has promised in the past to help the Senate Democrats take control, but little political energy was expended on his part to make it happen. He also faces a likely Democratic primary opponent if he seeks re-election in 2018.

There is a bit of a "Groundhog Day" effect occurring again with the Senate. In June 2014, Klein pledged to reunite with his former Democratic colleagues – but not until after the elections that year. The deal later fell apart, and Klein again entered into a power-sharing deal with Republicans.

In the latest act, Democratic insiders – Brown and other party leaders – Monday night wrote to Klein and Sen. Andrea-Stewart Cousins, the head of the mainline group of Senate Democrats, to say that they could “no longer tolerate the IDC and the Senate Democrats inability to unify.’’

A failure to accept the offer would result in Cuomo’s Democratic Party becoming “prepared to unite in presenting primary challenges to IDC members," the party insiders wrote to the senators.

Stewart-Cousins signaled an immediate willingness to accept the unity offer as outlined in the letter.

The letter was interesting on a few fronts. For starters, Klein and Cuomo are longtime political allies, and Cuomo has felt firsthand the benefits – in budget and policy deals – of having the IDC aligned with the Senate Republicans.

Secondly, the letter sent to Klein and Stewart-Cousins noted that there are about to be two vacancies in the Senate – seats now held by departing Democrats – and that a special election won’t occur until the spring. As such, the unity arrangement between Democrats would not occur until after the state budget is resolved as scheduled in late March, the letter writers told the senators. Theoretically, that would help Cuomo get past thorny budget talks – as he faces a growing state budget deficit – with the alliance of the Republicans and IDC.

Third, the letter made no political threats against Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who has conferenced with Senate Republicans. His siding with the mainline Democrats, or the IDC, would be required for the Democrats to get the magical 32 number for a Senate power shift.

In the interview Tuesday, Klein repeated past assertions that the IDC is “eager” to work out a power-sharing arrangement with the mainline Democrats. But he cautioned that he wants “every” member of that main Democratic group to say that they back the IDC’s various policy agenda items, including expansion of abortion and immigration rights, a taxpayer funded campaign finance system and additional coverage for contraceptives.

“The document, as it stands now, which came with threats and everything else, can be easily achieved,’’ Klein said, if the mainline Democrats agree to the IDC’s policy demands.

What is uncertain is how the political intrigue will affect the upcoming legislative session that begins Jan. 3. Why, for instance, would the Senate Republicans be willing to cut deals with Cuomo and the IDC if they are gunning to end their decades of dominance in the Senate?

“There’s a time for politics and a time for governing, and it’s unfortunate that some in Albany can’t ever separate the two,’’ said Scott Reif, a spokesman for Flanagan and the Senate Republicans.

He said Republicans expect to grow its majority next year, which will get its first test in the first part of the year in a special election contest in Westchester County to fill the seat of the departing George Latimer, a Democrat who was elected county executive.

“In the meantime, we are hopeful that everyone involved will continue to work together to move this state forward because it is in the best interest of the people of New York,’’ Reif said.

For his part, Klein said he hopes that his good working relationship with Flanagan, the GOP leader, continues when the new session starts.

“But he also understands, or I think he would, that when an election happens, I have to help Democrats,’’ Klein said.

After the sun went down Tuesday, Klein put out a new written statement, saying that he had been given an "assurance" by the state party that the IDC's agenda "will be advanced" and that he now looked forward to "implementing the terms" of the proposed unity deal.

What the terms are, precisely, could be four or more months away.

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


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