ALBANY – The former head of a breakaway group of Senate Democrats said Thursday he is at peace with a deal to unify warring Senate Democrats – even if it sharply reduces his power in Albany.
“I’m confident we’ll be able to get a lot more done in a Democratic majority," Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who agreed Wednesday to end the life of the Independent Democratic Conference and its power-sharing alliance with Republicans in order to unify with the group of mainline Democrats.
In so doing, Klein – who for several years has been among the four-men-in-a-room negotiating state budgets and major policy deals – becomes deputy minority leader under Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
Klein noted the Democrats still have much work to do in order to oust Republicans. For starters, there are two Senate seats up for grabs in an April 24 special election; one of the seats could be won by Republicans.
If Democrats win those contests, Democrats will have a numerical edge – 32 seats – in the Senate. But a lone Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, still conferences with Republicans and he has made only vague statements about what his future intentions might be.
Klein, in an interview Thursday afternoon, said he has not spoken to Felder since the unification deal was announced Wednesday in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Manhattan office. He said Felder “is a big question mark."
Moreover, even if Felder joins the Democrats to give them a majority, “We’re still not going to get a lot of progressive items done.’’ Felder, an Orthodox Jew, is a conservative on many social issues. The Felder question, Klein said, makes it important for the Democrats to win additional seats this fall to avoid the possibility of a majority that comes together only with Felder’s help.
Klein in the past had vowed that any unity deal would include keeping alive the breakaway group he founded in 2011 originally with four senators. Until Wednesday, it had eight senators as members. Klein had also insisted in the past that any unity deal include him being a co-leader with Stewart-Cousins.
“We all believe the best way we can unify is by not having co-presidencies," Klein said.
For now, there is nothing in writing that seals the deal, Klein said. He noted the main terms were sealed with a handshake in front of Cuomo and a roomful of reporters and other senators.
One thing Klein is not shutting down are two campaign accounts – with $1.42 million in the bank – that finances campaign operations for the IDC members. Asked if it would be the ultimate sign of good faith that the IDC and mainline Senate Democratic campaigns merge their finances, Klein said: “I need to protect the members of the former Independent Democratic Conference."
IDC members face primaries by insurgents who say they betrayed the Democratic Party by forging an alliance deal over the years with Senate Republicans. How many of those challengers might eventually drop out after Wednesday's unity deal is uncertain, but several have vowed to forge on and a rally was held in Manhattan today by some IDC challengers. “I’m hopeful that won’t be an issue and I can use most of my resources to help elect Democrats in November," Klein said of threatened primary races against former IDC members, only one of whom is from upstate.
Klein said if Democrats don’t take over the Senate with Felder’s help in May or June – assuming they win both special election contests – “then we have to achieve it in the elections in November."
In the end, Klein defended the IDC. “I still believe in the creation of the Independent Democratic Conference seven years ago," he said. At the time, Albany was witnessing “a dysfunctional state Senate that couldn’t get things done," he said the IDC was instrumental in getting passage of everything from minimum wage hikes and the Safe Act gun control law to legalization of gay marriages.