When New Yorkers go to the polls today, they’ll have an opportunity to cast judgement on a group of Democratic state senators who, for years, caucused with Republicans, giving the GOP a constructive majority in a Democratic legislature. The group, known as the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, disbanded in April in a move that’s been interpreted as an attempt to mitigate criticism ahead of primary challenges this fall. But all eight members of the IDC are nevertheless facing primaries.
One of the challengers is Julie Goldberg, a librarian from Chestnut Ridge who is hoping to unseat Sen. David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown. In an email to The Intercept, Goldberg described the IDC as an “unholy alliance.” She said she decided to throw her hat in the ring when it became obvious that someone needed to challenge Carlucci’s “betrayal.” “Having no political ambitions,” said Goldberg, “I had nothing to lose by challenging him.”
Goldberg says that when she began her campaign, a network of over 60 progressive organizations had already been formed to oppose the IDC. The coalition, which includes No IDC NY, True Blue NY, the Working Families Party, and the New York Progressive Action Network, among many others, had been phone banking in IDC member districts since November 2017 with the goal of informing Democrats about what their state senators were up to. “By the time I declared, in May of this year, there was an organized team of volunteers from all over the district, in both Rockland and Westchester ready to transform itself into a campaign,” said Goldberg.
That infrastructure helped Goldberg and other IDC challengers establish their campaigns. Most of those going up against IDC incumbents have been able to raise substantial sums and garner significant endorsements as a result of anti-IDC energy in the state. It’s a blue wave, but one aimed at sitting Democrats. “All sorts of political players in the state are realigning,” said Susan Kang, an associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and one of the co-founders of No IDC NY.
For years, the IDC effectively turned control of the state Senate over to the GOP, contrary to the wishes of voters who sent Democratic majorities to Albany in 2012 and 2016. The conference first came into existence in January 2011, when Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx and three other Democrats — Carlucci; Diane Savino, D-Staten Island; and David Valesky, D-Oneida — broke from the Democratic caucus and joined what was then a Republican majority in exchange for committee chair positions and increased power. “They decided that they would make alliance with the Republicans to be in power and get perks,” said George Albro, co-chair of the New York Progressive Action Network.
A year later, in 2012, the Democrats won a majority of seats in the chamber. But Klein, Carlucci, Savino, and Valesky, joined by then-Sen. Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, decided to stay aligned with the GOP senators. “They gave what would otherwise be a minority party control against their own party,” said Albro.
Smith was removed from the caucus after his indictment on corruption charges in 2013, but the caucus picked up Tony Avella, D-Queens, the next February. Avella and Klein faced primary challenges in 2014, but both survived. The rest of the conference members were unchallenged in their primaries. In 2016, after the general election, Sens. Marisol Alcantara, D-Manhattan, and Jesse Hamilton, D-Brooklyn, joined the IDC; in January 2017, Sen. Jose Peralta, D-Queens, became a member.
That’s where things stood until April of this year. The group dissolved following a meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has long been seen as an ally and quiet backer of a Republican-led state Senate. “It’s clear that Cuomo was behind this,” said Albro. “He supported and never challenged them, then this year he called them into his office and they immediately disbanded.”
The Intercept reached out to each IDC member’s campaign for comment, but never received a reply. Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment, but in the past, the office has denied that the governor plays any role in the IDC. Cuomo’s comments on the conference are few and far between, but he did suggest in May 2017 that he preferred a Republican Senate to a Democratic one, if only for the efficacy of the former caucus in Albany.
“We’ve had a unified Democratic government in Albany,” Cuomo told the Daily News, referring to the 2009-10 session when Democrats controlled the Senate, Assembly, and governor’s mansion, and when Cuomo was the state attorney general. “It’s not a hypothetical. We’ve had it. It wasn’t extraordinarily successful. So I work with the Assembly and Senate that I’ve been given, and I do the best I can.”
The IDC has come under repeated criticism for stymying the ability of Democrats in the Senate to get things done. Progressives cite the caucus’s alliance with Republicans as one of the factors preventing the Senate from addressing legislation — like single-payer health care, marijuana legalization, and the DREAM Act — meant to improve the lives of New Yorkers. Cuomo didn’t seem interested in exercising his power over what could pass through the Senate, Kang told The Intercept. “Cuomo made sure not much reform got through anyway.”
Now, on election day, the moment of reckoning appears to be upon the IDC. Though no public polling has been done on the individual races, there are indications that at least some of the caucus members won’t be returning to Albany. The Senate Independence Campaign Committee, or SICC, the IDC’s campaign fundraising account, is funneling money to five of the incumbents: Alcantara, Hamilton, Klein, Avella, and Peralta.
A rundown of all of Thursday’s IDC races follows.
This Queens race is a rematch between former comptroller John Liu and Avella, who Liu first challenged in 2014. Liu thinks he’s got him this time. He’s raised more money than Avella, and has the endorsement of both of the district’s congressional representatives and both of its assembly members. Liu made a late-game decision to run in July, meaning he had to get 3,000 signatures in the 10 days before the registration deadline. Liu sees his ability to accomplish that feat as evidence of strong voter support for his challenge. “That’s how much enthusiasm there is for beating the IDC,” said Kang.
A former aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Jessica Ramos is running to unseat Peralta in Queens. Ramos has the support of the mayor and has also been endorsed by the New York Times, Cynthia Nixon, and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as a number of progressive groups, including Our Revolution and People for Bernie. Notably, Gillibrand may be looking to absolve herself for her prior endorsement of Rep. Joe Crowley in his race against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Ramos also endorsed Crowley).
Like Liu, Ramos has also out-earned Peralta, with $108,065.29 on hand as of September 11, compared to Peralta’s $101,114.35.
Zellnor Myrie, a lawyer, is going up against Hamilton in the 20th District, which encompasses parts of northern Brooklyn. Myrie, like Julia Salazar, is attacking his opponent’s ties to the real estate industry and questionable progressive credentials. Myrie, like Ramos, has been endorsed by the Times, Gillibrand, and de Blasio, among others.
Staten Island’s Savino is up against Jasmine Robinson. Savino has significantly out-raised and outspent her opponent: Robinson’s July campaign filing shows a paltry $4,442.23, compared to Savino’s $141,777.90.
Despite endorsements from progressive groups like Our Revolution and Citizen Action, Robinson may be outmatched by Savino’s machine. And Robinson’s heart may not be in the race: She filed suit in July to be taken off the ballot due to fraudulent signatures on her own nomination papers, though she quickly reversed herself.
No IDC NY’s chief strategist Gus Christensen believes that Robinson was taken advantage of by a political team that didn’t have her best interests at heart. “She almost got knocked out,” said Christensen. “But she got right back up; she got a new team who have her best interests at heart.”
With more money on hand than Alcantara, despite her outspending him, challenger Robert Jackson could be poised to upset the Manhattan incumbent. Alcantara was a recent arrival to the state Senate, while Jackson, a former city councilor, has a long history in the district. Jackson’s efforts in the district include his work on public education: He co-founded the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which sued the state in 1991 for not adequately providing funding to the city’s schoolchildren. The campaign finally won the lawsuit in 2006, but funding has still been hard to come by due to inaction by the state legislature and Cuomo.
Like the other candidates, Jackson can claim a long list of endorsements, including former Mayor David Dinkins and U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
“He’s running to help us overcome the biggest obstacle to progressive change here in New York,” said Jackson’s spokesperson Richard Fife, “an obstacle that’s been around for decades: the Republican-controlled state Senate.”
In the Bronx, Klein, the IDC’s leader, is facing off against political newcomer Alessandra Biaggi. Biaggi is no stranger to Democratic politics: She was Hillary Clinton’s deputy national operations director in 2016, and her grandfather, Mario Biaggi, was the congressional representative for New York’s 16th District from 1969 to 1988, when he resigned following corruption charges.
Biaggi’s challenge has made an impact on Klein: He has spent $836,172.64 in the last 30 days, including a $124,035.90 check to the Hamilton Campaign Network, a firm run by actor Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father, for “Digital Ad Production and Placement.” Meanwhile, Biaggi has been knocking doors in the district with Ocasio-Cortez, the reigning queen of Bronx upsets. Klein has a massive cash advantage over Biaggi, with $957,827.45 to her $263,113.17, but his significant spending, over $2.4 million in all, suggests he’s nervous.
A victory over Klein would not only bolster Biaggi’s profile, but defeating the IDC leader would be a major blow to the IDC and Cuomo (should Cuomo fend off the challenge from Nixon).
Carlucci is facing a challenge from Goldberg in Westchester. Goldberg got into the race late, and the 38th District presents unique challenges for an upstart campaign. The district is geographically spread out, making door-to-door canvassing more difficult. And Goldberg is hurt by her relative lack of personal political connections. “She has much less local political support from other elected officials than our candidates inside of New York City do,” said Christensen, “and it is that much harder for her to get the kind of media attention that would help build her fundraising base.” Carlucci has not recently received SICC money, but he still out-raised Goldberg by a factor of 24. This financial advantage suggests he is less vulnerable than some of his opponents, but as Ocasio-Cortez’s win showed, money isn’t everything.
In New York’s northernmost district, the IDC’s former deputy leader, Valesky, is facing a challenge from Rachel May, a sustainability education coordinator at Syracuse University. May’s progressive campaign — she supports single-payer health care and campaign finance reform — could turn out voters on its own merits. But Valesky has outspent May by nearly 800 percent — $286,118.87 to her $35,847.32. Still, May believes she has a shot, citing her endorsement by Valesky’s own Oneida County Democratic Committee as an indication that her support is stronger than it appears.