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Challengers to former state Senate IDC members gaining momentum

Primary challengers to a group of former breakaway Democrats in the state Senate have been gaining momentum lately, at least when it comes to campaign endorsements.

Many are encouraged by the June upset win of primary challenger, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to longtime Queens Congressman Joe Crowley.

The Democratic primary challenger to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Cynthia Nixon, has challenged several of the candidates challenging former members of the Senate Independent Democratic Conference.

Nixon endorsed Alessandra Biaggi, who is running against Jeff Klein, the former leader of the IDC.

Nixon also backed Jessica Ramos, who is running against former IDC member Jose Peralta. The Senate district in Queens is part of the congressional district where Ocasio-Cortez beat incumbent Crowley.

“Jessica is the future,” Nixon said.

Ramos and Biaggi have endorsed Nixon in her run for governor.

The IDC has allied with Republicans in the state Senate during the past eight legislative sessions, at one point co-leading the Senate with the GOP. Both Nixon and Ramos say that led to inaction on many key issues they support, including abortion rights, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and the Dream Act, which would give college aid to the children of undocumented immigrants.

Ramos said she endorsed Nixon over Cuomo because she shares Nixon’s belief that the governor tacitly supported the breakaway Democrats.

“Look, he’s had eight years to do the work,” Ramos said. “At some point we as women have to say that, ‘Even though you keep telling us that you have our backs, it’s time for us to step up and take care of it on our own.’ ”

Ramos, in an interview after the endorsement announcement, said she feels that state government has failed her and other members of her generation. She said the public school she attended is still owed money under a decade-old court order on school funding that was never fulfilled, and she has high student debt and trouble affording housing in a city with high rental rates and home prices. Her parents are immigrants, and when she was a baby, her father was caught up in an immigration raid, which she said was traumatic for her family.

Ramos said she’s heartened by Ocasio-Cortez’s win, which she said has “galvanized” progressives in the Democratic Party.

“With a bigot in the White House, people are starting to understand how important it is that we have a true blue state government that can protect us,” Ramos said.

The primary challengers to the former IDC senators have picked up other endorsements in the days since the congressional primary in late June.

A major New York City-based union, SEIU BJ 32, has endorsed Biaggi. The president of the union, Hector Figueroa, said on Twitter that the IDC “betrayed voters” and created “a big political mess.”

“Time to clean up,” he added.

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, as well as several Democratic Assembly members who are running for re-election, also are endorsing the challengers.

After the budget was done in April, the IDC rejoined the rest of the Democrats, announcing the merger in a press conference that Cuomo held. The IDC members are now part of the mainstream Democrats in the Senate.

But the Democratic conference is not siding with the former breakaway Democratic senators over their challengers. Sen. Mike Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who runs the Democrats’ campaign committee, said in an interview with public radio and television in June that he will wait until the primary is over, in mid-September, and then will fully back the winners, whether they are incumbents or insurgents.

“That has always been our policy,” said Gianaris, who added that even when the IDC in the past primaried some mainstream Democrats, they did not take sides.

The former IDC senators have support. Klein has received the backing of the largest health care workers union in the state, SEIU 1199. Klein also has Cuomo’s support, and according to the New York Times, he has sent out mailers to primary voters in his district featuring pictures of him and the governor together.

A spokeswoman for Klein fired back, accusing the primary challengers of aiding Republicans.

“While the federal government and judiciary are attacking New Yorkers, these challengers, instead of working for a united Democratic Senate, are having a public identity crisis and will only have themselves to blame in November when they still don’t have votes in the Senate to pass the progressive legislation they claim to care about, said Klein spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio. "Each of the Senators being challenged won their seats in the past through bruising primaries, and will win again because they have earned the support of voters by delivering unprecedented resources and actual progressive legislation. Senator Klein is focused on achieving a Democratic Majority in the Senate, which depends on Democratic unity and winning Republican seats. Instead, these so-called reformers are aiding and abetting the Republicans in New York State."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.