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State Senator Dave Valesky on the Campbell Conversations

State Senator Dave Valesky (D-Oneida), left, speaks with Campbell Conversations host Grant Reeher

When the New York State Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference joined in a majority coalition with Republicans in 2012, it claimed that the arrangement would provide more up-or-down floor votes on progressive legislation.  In announcing a new intention to caucus with Democrats following this November’s elections, the IDC is claiming that the arrangement will provide….more up-or-down votes on progressive legislation.  How can both claims be true?  That question and others related to political power-sharing arrangements are explored with this week’s guest on the Campbell Conversations—IDC member Senator Dave Valesky.

Grant Reeher (GR): Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. My guest today is State Senator Dave Valesky, he was first elected to the Senate in 2004 and represents the 53rd District which contains most of the City of Syracuse and areas to the East.

Across the State he is probably best known as one of the members of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC); a group of Democrats who broke from the Democratic Conference in the Senate and joined in a Coalition with Senate Republicans to constitute a working majority. Recently the IDC announced that it plans to join with Senate Democrats following the November elections.

Dan Valesky (DV): Happy to be here Grant, thanks for having me.

GR: Can you start by giving me a very brief account of the life of the Independent Democratic Conference?

DV: We formed the Independent Democratic Conference after the elections of 2010 largely as a result of frustration on the part of myself and a handful of other Democrats with how the Senate had been run in 2009 and 2010.  The first two years of the IDC, in 2011 and 2012, the Senate Republicans had the outright majority, and then these last two years  -- the session that just finished a couple of weeks ago – we did form a governing majority, a bipartisan coalition with the Republican Conference. No conference in and of itself had enough votes to constitute a majority.

GR: The last time you were on this program, the IDC had just joined with the Republicans. You said then that joining in that coalition would result in more floor votes for progressive legislation, because the Democrats, governing alone, would have been more afraid to bring things to the floor if they might lose. The argument seemed kind of counter-intuitive. Did it turn out to be true?

DV: Only partially. I had thought and hoped that it would have been true on a greater number of occasions but the rules that govern the coalition give the leaders of both the Senate Independent Democratic Conference and the Republican Conference the ability to not allow any bill to come to the floor for a vote. But we did have votes on progressive issues. Some of those votes resulted in bill passage; other votes resulted in failure of legislation.

GR: Now you folks have decided you are going to join with the Democrats. This is again being touted by members of your Conference as being a boon for progressives. That we are going to see more votes – again, it’s the same argument. How can both of these things be true? Why are we going to see this now?

DV: Well I think for those who are critical on this point, I think that is a legitimate criticism in looking back over the last couple of years in terms of the coalition's work.  That having been said, I and my fellow IDC colleagues have in no way backed off of the results that we have been able to produce. I think to look at the coalition over the last two years through the relatively narrow lens of progressive issues and what did get done and what did not get done, under the construct of what is a progressive issue, I think that is too narrow a definition.

GR: So why make the switch now?

DV: We had talked at the beginning of this coalition, and I had thought there would have been a greater number of progressive issues that would have been addressed one way or another – pass or fail one way or another.  Again, I think that has been a legitimate criticism of the past two years. In a State that is as overwhelmingly Democratic in terms of party registration as New York is, and continues to be a bluer and bluer State under that definition, that’s a very valid criticism that needed to be addressed one way or the other.

[An] example: the campaign finance reform package that was included in the State budget and specifically, the public matching program. There were far more robust proposals out there than what was included in the final State budget. One of the most robust proposals was actually an IDC proposal from last year.  It would have been the most aggressive plan.  Not only did that not get a vote, we were not able to get a vote on the floor of the Senate on anything regarding public matching beyond the comptroller demonstration project.

From the IDC’s collective opinion there were an insufficient number of these types of issues that were addressed one way or another.

GR: How much of this [switch] is about the governor shoring up his left flank going into an election year?

DV: The governor made it very clear and he has had a progressive agenda clearly and he has moved the State forward, I think, with the assistance of the IDC and the Senate in general over much of his entire first term, whether it is on-time budgets, fiscally responsible budgets, getting the economy moving again, job creation, tax reliefs through the property tax cap and the plan that we put in place this year.

GR: From the outside, it  looks like the governor delivered the change.  How independent are you folks going to be able to say you are if it looks like that’s where the change came from?

DV: He has been very consistent; in many public forums he has talked about the issue of Senate governance. He has made clear that he has a progressive agenda that he thinks the State of New York wants passed.  The ten point women’s equality agenda, we did that two years in a row. We in the Senate did nine of those ten, which were critically important issues. The tenth would not get done, arguably, in part, because of the bipartisan coalition and he has made clear that that is his agenda on behalf of the people of the State, and he wants to see the agenda passed.

GR:  How much was a concern over being challenged in a Democratic primary driving the change?

DV: Very, very little. Speaking for myself now, and not for the entire Conference, I was certainly prepared for a primary. I would challenge anyone to look at my voting record and identify items or areas in that voting record that are inconsistent with the principles of the Democratic Party. Whether it is a primary or a general election you run on your record, you run on your results that you hope to produce for your constituents, and then at the end of the day voters will make their say.

GR: I wanted to ask you a bigger question about reform. It does seem to be the case that in the last few years there have been big promises of reform that don’t materialize--the Moreland Commission, campaign finance, redistricting.  Instead of the mouse that roared, it's more like the elephant that squeaked.  Do you really see any significant reforms that are going to get serious looks in the next session, where there actually might be a real chance for something to materialize?

DV: Reform of any structure is a process. I have always maintained that it is not a switch that is going to be flipped and someone is going to say, “Okay, reform is done. Let’s move on to the next issue.” Campaign finance -- certainly much more can and should and will be done on that issue moving forward into the next session. On redistricting...

GR: That window is kind of closed.

DV: Not really.  Most people think it’s closed. It closed from a legislative perspective a couple of years ago but it is still open because of this year’s ballot in November.  Remember we passed the constitutional amendment. It is for all of us as New Yorkers to decide.

GR: So in order to keep real reform alive, we vote "No"?

DV: That’s a matter of opinion.

GR: To reopen the question then.

DV: To reopen the question.  There had been I think some legitimate questions about how much reform could have been done without amending the constitution in the first place. And I still believe that. So, if the voters do turn that constitutional amendment down and send the issue back to the Legislature and in this case back to the drawing board, I’m not sure what else we’ll be able to come up with unilaterally as a Legislature.

We could go back to the people and put another constitutional amendment on the ballot.

GR: The announcement of the switch to the Democrats arguably creates some confusion for voters in your district, because unless they are paying a lot of attention, it's unclear what they are voting for in November.  What is the impact of one's vote on the likely kinds of legislation and proposals that are going to be considered?

DV: Very rarely can you point to elections where the populous votes for political control of a body of a legislature, of a house of representatives, of a United States Senate or of a New York State  Senate.  The vast majority of people go into a ballot box voting for the incumbent or against the incumbent. They weigh the choice that they have in that particular election and say, I think he or she is better for the job or this other candidate is better. I don’t know that what you are articulating is necessarily at the top of most voters' minds.  They look at our records as individual legislators and they say he is doing a good job or he is not doing a good job.

My insistence, in addition to many of the other members of the IDC, was that the Independent Democratic Conference remains an independent conference. There was pressure for the IDC Senators to fold back into the Senate Democratic Conference.  From my perspective, that was a deal breaker really.  There is no backing away from the intent to work on individual issues in a bipartisan fashion doing what’s best for the people of the State or for a specific geographic  region.

GR:  What's the IDC’s worst trait?

DV: We at times have been overly deliberative and maybe not moved as quickly as perhaps we should have on particular issues--not in terms of this coalition government or decisions that we made to form the coalition, but more on individual issues.

GR: What achievement of the IDC so far has surprised you the most?

DV: How well and quickly the IDC was able to take leadership of a governing construct--coalition government--that is completely foreign to almost all, not only New Yorkers, but all Americans. We don’t have coalition government; we are not a parliamentary democracy in the United States. So the ability that we were able to have in a two-year legislative cycle – to put together and really change the status quo in Albany for the positive -- would be my answer.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.