Attention across New York was riveted on the outcome of a special election in Westchester County yesterday, where Democrats held onto a state senate seat, edging them closer to assuming control of state government. The 63-seat senate is now divided 31-31, with Simcha Felder, who represents the primarily Orthodox Jewish district of central Brooklyn and runs unopposed on both party lines, caucusing with the Republicans. State Democrats, like the party nationally, are hopeful that a November “blue wave” will give them total control in Albany and open the road to a progressive transformation of New York.
The major drama in the senate, however, was resolved earlier this month, when the Independent Democratic Conference dissolved itself and rejoined the mainline Democrats. The IDC, originally composed of four moderate Democrats, all white, had caucused with the Republicans since 2011, solidifying GOP control of the chamber, while providing Governor Andrew Cuomo political leverage and cover as the dealmaker in the state capital. Progressive suspicions that Cuomo was in fact the engineer, or at least enabler, of the IDC were confirmed when, shortly after Cynthia Nixon gained traction on the governor’s left flank, the renegade Democrats rejoined the general party conference.
Democrats dominate the state assembly, but Republicans have held the senate—with two brief interruptions—since 1939. In 2008, the last time the Democrats took control, the chamber dissolved into got-mine factionalism, lockouts, and fights over parking spaces and light switches. Downstate Democrats, mostly black and Latino, demanded minority leadership, leading to the formation of the IDC; Jeff Klein, a senate Democrat representing well-heeled donors in the Bronx and Westchester, decided to make his own deal with the GOP. At its peak, prior to the recent reunification of the Democrats, the IDC had all of eight members, including three black or Latino senators; these minority members took furious criticism from left progressives, who vowed to “primary” the entire faction.
One can make a strong case that Nixon’s gubernatorial candidacy is intended to drive turnout in the Democratic primary in order to defeat the renegade IDC senators. From this perspective, by pushing Cuomo to reunite the Democrats and move to the left on other issues, she has already won. Nixon, with strong ties to Mayor Bill de Blasio and the teachers’ unions, continues to stake out far-left positions, essentially taunting Cuomo to join her in a game of ideological leapfrog.
Regardless of whether Nixon beats Cuomo, Democratic control of the state legislature, with a politically wounded Cuomo reluctant to play moderate spoiler and put his national ambitions at risk, will mean a hard-left course for New York State. To downstate progressives, the state senate has been a stumbling block up to now. A Democratic legislature, with a compliant governor, will move toward “fully funding” traditional public schools by raising taxes and ending support for charter schools. Repeal of the Urstadt Law will give New York City freedom to reverse vacancy-decontrol rules on rent-stabilized units, ensuring that the city’s sclerotic rental market remains rigid and expensive. It’s likely that a Democrat-controlled state government would try to implement a form of single-payer health care that would, given New York’s already- runaway spending on health care, be both ineffective and expensive.
Driven by public-sector union money and a motivated progressive base, New York State is moving left. Assuming that the unified senate Democratic conference holds together after November, there will be little to stop the Nixon agenda—even if its implementers are disguised as a third Cuomo administration.
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