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After Years of Infighting, New York Senate Democrats Strike 'Unity Deal'

Long-feuding state Senate Democrats have brokered a framework deal to reunite, which Democrats claim will bolster the party's prospects for taking control from Republicans of the 63-member chamber.

By Tom Precious

Long-feuding state Senate Democrats have brokered a framework deal to reunite, which Democrats claim will bolster the party's prospects for taking control from Republicans of the 63-member chamber.

And this time, they say it's real.

Following a Democratic "unity meeting" Tuesday in Manhattan, attended by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Democratic Senate leaders and top officials of unions that hold influence over the Democratic Party, the cohesion deal among Senate Democrats was announced Wednesday afternoon.

"Today is a very exciting day," said Cuomo, who has been criticized over the years for not doing more to use his influence as Democratic Party leader to end the intraparty battles in the Senate.

The deal comes just three weeks before two vacant Senate seats get filled in special elections that could give Democrats a numerical advantage -- though it can't yet count on where one breakaway Democrat from Brooklyn might call home at the Capitol.

People involved in the talks say everyone from mainline Democrats to the renegade, eight members of the Independent Democratic Conference had something to gain from the reunification effort.

But few had more at stake than Cuomo, who has been accused over the years by the left wing of his party of bolstering the IDC alliance with Senate Republicans at the expense of the Democratic Party on any range of fiscal and policy matters.

Democratic officials sought to portray the new agreement as the real deal. One announced in 2014 collapsed. Late last year, the sides proclaimed a reconciliation agreement, but said details would have to be worked out after the April 24 special elections to fill seats in Westchester and Bronx counties.

The announcement Wednesday was accelerated in what Democrats say was a bow on Cuomo's part to the small, but influential, Working Families Party. The liberal party next month is set to pick a gubernatorial candidate and Cuomo wants the line. To get that party's nod in past elections, Cuomo vowed to get the Senate Democrats to unite, but it didn't happen. Now, he will be able to go before that party's delegates at its Harlem convention with a semblance of unity restored among Senate Democrats.

Vying for the Working Families Party nomination will also be actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, who announced her Democratic Party challenge to Cuomo a couple of weeks ago. She has hammered Cuomo hard on the IDC/GOP alliance that has been in full force since 2012.

Nixon suggested the Cuomo role in helping to keep the IDC aligned with Senate Republicans is not going away after Wednesday's unification announcement. "If you've set your own house on fire and watched it burn for eight years, finally turning on a hose doesn't make you a hero," said Nixon, who has been pounding Cuomo on a theme that questions whether he is a true Democrat. Later, in an appearance in a Rensselaer County town hit by water contamination, Nixon said her new challenge to Cuomo is "certainly a factor" in today's Senate unity announcement.

Cuomo insiders countered on her IDC criticism Wednesday, saying the governor had no role in the creation of the IDC.

After the Manhattan meeting Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, leader of the mainline Democrats, tentatively agreed to unify her group with the IDC, which has been led by Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who has had outsized influence the past half-dozen years given the size of his small conference. Klein was one of only four people -- along with Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan -- in the room to negotiate key parts of the recently passed state budget.

"Thank you for pulling this together. Let's see how well we do," Stewart-Cousins said to Cuomo at a Manhattan event.

"I believe Andrea Stewart-Cousins is a trailblazer ... And I think united we can do great things," Klein said.

It was only last week when Senate Democrats were complaining the Cuomo cut out Stewart-Cousins from closed-door talks over the new $168.3 billion budget.

Klein has previously said his group would rejoin the Democrats, but that his IDC would live on.

There are a few asterisks to the deal:

* The IDC is legally a part of the Senate rules, and its evaporation would face hurdles before the end of the session in June.

* If the Democrats win two special election contests on April 24, it would bring their ranks to 32 -- a majority in the Senate. However, Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, has had his own, one-man conference in which he has been aligned with Senate Republicans. He has not said what he will do. So, if Democrats win the April 24 contests, there would be 31 Democrats, 31 Republicans and Felder. Either way, the real fight lies in the November general elections, because neither Democrats nor the GOP want to have Felder be a one-man kingmaker in what would be, in the words of one lawmaker, "cumbersome."

Felder, as usual, was keeping his options open. "I'm only loyal to (God), my wife, my constituents and New Yorkers. I don't care about political parties and more and more New Yorkers feel the same way," he said.

* Surprisingly, Klein agreed to become deputy majority leader, giving Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, full control as leader of the Democratic conference. For someone who has enjoyed the taste of power in Albany, Klein backed away from what some said were demands that he at least be co-leader of the Democrats. Klein did so as Democrats were threatening to provide major bankrolls to opponents in primaries against the eight IDC members this year.

* There is much, much work still to be done to finalize any deal, not the least of which is who gets to head what committee if the Senate flips to Democratic-run, staff allotments and even office assignments.

The Tuesday meeting included leaders of two major teachers unions, health care unions, public employee unions, a communications workers union and Mario Cilento, head of the state AFL-CIO.

By first thing Wednesday morning, Stewart-Cousins was on a conference call with her mainline Democratic conference colleagues, explaining the deal to them.

"The Democratic conference is very excited about putting the pieces together to move to regain a majority. We're not there yet, but this is a step in the right direction. It's a step of certainty that need to happen for us to regain the majority,'' said Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat.

Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said most New Yorkers want Democrats and Republicans to work together in Albany. "It now appears that the governor and others are willing to throw it all away in a desperate attempt to avoid Democratic Party primaries," Reif said. He added the GOP expects to remain in control of the Senate through 2018.

"Let's be honest: The only reason that any of this is happening now is because Andrew Cuomo is scared to death of Cynthia Nixon," Reif added.

If the Democrats take over, upstate will see its Senate influence decline. Presently, for instance, five senators from Western New York are in the majority; if the Democrats take over, that number will go to one: Kennedy. He would be among just a handful from upstate to serve in the majority in a New York City-dominated Democratic Senate conference. Lawmakers in the minority have little to no say over much of anything in Albany.

Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, who announced his GOP gubernatorial bid this week, noted the potential hit on upstate by Democratic-run Senate in a town where Democrats already control the Assembly and all four statewide seats.

"Today, (Cuomo) sold out his governing partners in the New York State Senate Republicans and the 11 million people who don't live in New York City in a cynical deal to protect his own political viability," Molinaro said.

(c)2018 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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