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New state Senate co-leader says coalition is not exclusive

The new governing coalition of the New York state Senate has received some criticism that it is leaving out minorities. But one of the two co-leaders of the Senate is defending the coalition, which includes five Independent Democrats and 30 Republicans.

The new coalition includes just one African American and no Hispanics, prompting criticism from, among others, the Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP President Hazel Dukes.

Senator Jeff Klein, the head of the Independent Democratic Coalition, says he respects Sharpton and has even joined him in past civil rights protests. Klein says blacks and Hispanics are not being left out, and they are free to join the new coalition.

“The Independent Democratic conference is not an exclusive club,” Klein said. “It's open to anyone who’s serious about governing.”

Sharpton wants more committee posts given to senators of color, but Klein says it is not about that.

“There’s more to governing than committee posts,” he said.  

Klein says he hopes the new coalition will ultimately be judged on policy it embraces. Klein says he hopes they pass bills to reform New York City’s "stop and frisk" law, which critics say unfairly burdens young African Americans, and the immigration bill known as the Dream Act. It would allow children of undocumented immigrants to go to college.  

Senator Ruben Diaz says any claims by the IDC that they are not engaged in a power grab is “baloney.”

“You care about yourselves ,” said Diaz. “Just admit it.”

Senator Diaz was a member of the self titled “Four Amigos.” The four Senators in late 2008 formed a faction within the then newly elected majority party Democrats, and demanded leadership and committee posts to expand their influence.  Diaz says the IDC members are “copycats,” but he says what they are trying to do is “a lot worse” than what the Amigos did.

Senator Klein disputes that. “We want to be powerful,” Klein says. “But we want to be powerful in determining a legislative agenda.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he will judge the coalition on policy, not on the Senate’s internal politics. Cuomo wants them to act on a number of progressive bills, including raising the minimum wage and campaign finance reform, measures that the governor has called a “litmus test.”  If they can’t pass those bills, then Cuomo says the coalition will have “failed.”

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.