This past week the “Empire State,” or in truth what once was, held its primaries for state offices. Governor Andrew Cuomo defeated actor Cynthia Nixon. However amid the normally niche elections for state legislature that are usually of just local concern, something took place that merits national attention and thought. Specifically, the final decimation of New York State’s once-prominent Independent Democratic Conference.
Six of the eight current members of the New York State Senate’s former Independent Democratic Conference lost their primaries to more progressive opponents, including the conference’s leader, Jeff Klein of the Bronx and Westchester. The conference had officially dissolved after over 7-years of political prominence back in April 2018, as Governor Cuomo seemingly had brokered a deal to quell their unusual political straddle.
For those unfamiliar with the antics of the New York State legislature, it has been quite the rodeo in the past decade. It saw a “coup,” about as much one gets in America, in 2009 in the New York State Senate that threw the state into a series of extraordinary constitutional crises. In the years since it has seen the arrest of dozens and dozens of members of the Assembly and Senate by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and others, including much of the leadership of both parties ranging from Joseph Bruno to Sheldon Silver, from Malcolm Smith to many more.
Then in 2011 emerged the New York State Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). It was a group of “rogue” or “bipartisan” State Senators, depending on the partisan lens through which one might have viewed them, that decided to instead power-share with the New York State Senate Republicans. This initially gave the IDC some greater influence in the chamber, which was controlled by Republicans with a normal majority for a brief time from after the 2010 elections to the 2012 elections when they lost control again, to then a power-sharing agreement afterwards.
In many ways, it was similar to the Senate coup of 2009 where two rogue State Senators caucused with the Senate Republicans to give them control of the chamber. However that switch was full of antics, such as turning off the cameras and locking the doors, as well as the fact that criminal indictments were floating around that made the power-sharing untenable and unstable, as it broke after just a few months.
The IDC was different. It was announced and designed as an explicitly bipartisan movement that revived the “centrist Democrat” ethos that was at the time of its creation in 2011 seemingly being stamped out across the country. As a small but seemingly unified caucus in its pragmatism, it was able to push a variety of interesting and middle-of-the-road policy priorities that otherwise may have gotten lost in overtly partisan infighting.
Of course the IDC’s stand and actions were considered by many to be the ultimate political heresy, particularly as many of them came not from “blue dog” districts but rather the heart of the deep blue – primarily New York City neighborhoods and areas. They, derided regularly by the left as “traitors” and “tools,” were targeted instantly for seemingly ruining many progressives’ dream of not only easy policy priorities sliding through but challenging their takeover of the Democratic Party’s ideological movement.
To be clear, they were not conservatives and remained staunch Democrats. When they power-shared, they did not simply vote as Republicans but rather brought their own stand of pragmatic and centrist policy contributions to the table. Liberals maybe even some were, but they were ones who defiantly challenged the new “norm” nowadays of inter-party polarization and warring.
That finally they seem to have lost their noble but, from the very beginning, seemingly futile struggle is greatly disappointing for the hope of building a greater center once again in this country.
Nonetheless, I think they deserve a round of thanks for their heroic political stand against all odds. They fought the seeming tidal wave of our decade and it has cost them their political careers, and for many of them they are concluding the many decades they have spent in the New York State Legislature.
On a broader level, this is one of the New York State legislature’s antics that are worth closer examination and pondering. In New York State, of all places, a centrist Democrat movement stood its ground for over 7 years. In the grander view of history we may see their fight as having been right and both a return and prelude to calmer times – but for the moment, as they bid farewell, I say a deep and heartfelt thank you to the bold Senators of the New York State Independent Democratic Conference.