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Senate Democratic feuding factions unite, Dem candidate takes credit

From left to right: Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Jeff Klein

Two warring factions of Democrats in the state Senate are rejoining forces as pressure has mounted from the party’s left-leaning base for a reunification.

But the Democrats are still one vote short of the 32 seats they need to regain the majority.

The nearly decade-long split between the mainstream Democrats and the Independent Democratic Conference is over. At a hastily arranged news conference in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York City offices, Cuomo said it’s essential that the Democrats get back together to fight a “common enemy” – President Donald Trump.

“The common enemy is defeating Trump, and (Republican House Speaker Paul) Ryan, and (GOP Senate Leader Mitch) McConnell,” Cuomo said. “And taking over the New York State Senate so we can protect this state the way it needs to be protected.” 

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who sat next to Cuomo in the announcement, will remain the leader of the Senate Democrats. She is the only female legislative leader.

“It’s a great day,” Stewart-Cousins said. “It has certainly been something we’ve wanted to see for many, many years.”

As part of the deal, Stewart-Cousins is giving up her deputy leader, Sen. Mike Gianaris, though Gianaris will still head the Democrats’ election efforts.

Senate IDC Leader Jeff Klein is giving up more. He will no longer rule a separate conference and will instead become Stewart-Cousins’ deputy leader. Klein said everyone had to make a “sacrifice.”

“My grandfather always said, ‘Sometimes, you have to take a step back before you can take two steps forward,’ ” Klein said. “And that’s what we are doing here today. I believe we are taking two very important steps forward.” 

The IDC formed in January 2011, just hours before Cuomo’s first State of the State address. At times, the IDC has entered a ruling arrangement with the Republicans and helped the GOP retain control of the Senate when Republicans did not have enough seats to control the chamber on their own.

Cuomo has been criticized by the left in his party for condoning the IDC and not doing enough to help Democrats pick up seats in the Senate.

As recently as a few months ago, Cuomo denied that he has a lot of influence in reuniting the Democratic factions, likening it to a marriage and saying he can’t force them to marry.

Actor Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo in a primary, has been highly critical of the governor’s history of warm relations with the Republicans in the Senate, and his perceived lack of effort to get more Democrats elected to the chamber. Nixon said Cuomo has enabled the GOP to keep power in the Senate, and as a result, many progressive measures, including the Dream Act, the Child Victims Act and strengthening reproductive rights for women, have been blocked.

Nixon, at an event to advocate for clean drinking water in the eastern New York village of Hoosick Falls, was asked by reporters whether the governor’s actions had anything to do with her candidacy.

“I’m very glad that I’m running, and if in two and a half weeks of our campaign, we’ve succeeded in reconciling the IDC for the first time in eight years, well, we’re just thrilled,” Nixon said. “And we’re going to keep going.” 

Nixon said the last-minute efforts to reunify the Democrats is too little, too late, likening it to someone setting their own house on fire for eight years and watching it burn. She said that “finally turning on a hose doesn’t make you a hero.”

Cuomo said the Democrats already had tentatively agreed to reunite after special elections for two Senate seats to be held April 24, so he only moved up the plan two weeks.

“Yeah,” Cuomo said. “It had nothing to do with it.”

Democrats already were heavily favored to win the special election.

The Senate Republican Leadership reacted angrily to the announcement. Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif said in a statement, "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.”

Even with the reunification, the Democrats still won’t be in the majority in the Senate. One lone Senate Democrat, Simcha Felder, still caucuses with the Republicans. And Felder told The New York Times that he has no plans to switch to the Democrats before the legislative session ends in June.

The Senate Republicans helped Felder win a key item in the recently passed state budget. Felder was seeking some waivers from state rules regarding curriculum in religious yeshiva schools.

Even if Felder rejoins the Democrats, he holds conservative views and would likely not vote for many of the progressive items remaining in the session’s agenda. 

Many Senate Democrats have said that they don’t expect to see any major changes or any significant progressive legislation passed until the 2018 elections are over, and Cuomo agrees.

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.