The strange but true history of the New York State Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference took a turn for the positively wild on Tuesday, with Mayor de Blasio endorsing incumbent IDC members Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and Jeff Klein (D-Bronx).
Adding to the surprise was the announcement that the Working Families Party had withdrawn its backing of former city Comptroller John Liu, who is challenging Avella, and former state Attorney General Oliver Koppell, who is primarying Klein, and will remain neutral in both races
“Throughout this past session, Sen. Jeff Klein and Sen. Tony Avella worked tirelessly on behalf of the residents of New York City and helped make progress on issues that had been stalled too long,” de Blasio said in a joint statement with Avella on Tuesday.
“With their leadership, we secured a record increase in funding for universal pre-K, a fair budget for New York City, needed property tax relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy and the changes we need to save lives and improve street safety,” the mayor added.
Avella, the most recent convert to the IDC, Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) and Klein all had been targeted for defeat by establishment and progressive Democrats, who resent the IDC for its former power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans.
With 63 districts in the Senate, the GOP holds 29 seats. Democrats nominally hold 32, but Avella, Klein and three others have agreed to share power with GOP Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau). Two seats are vacant.
Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) caucuses with the Republicans. John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) was kicked out of the Democratic Caucus last year following his indictment on criminal charges. He and Smith have no caucus.
Smith was kicked out of the IDC for thessame reason in 2013; the irony was that the IDC was formed in 2011 when Smith was the Democratic majority leader. He joined the conference himself in fall 2012.
The conventional wisdom, until Tuesday afternoon, was that Smith, facing a federal corruption trial and the very popular former Councilman Leroy Comrie in a primary, was finished; and that Liu and Koppell would mount well-financed challenges, complete with union support.
Klein and Gov. Cuomo on June 25 announced an agreement by which the IDC would remain intact, but work with Democrats as it has worked with Skelos the last few years. The theory was that, along with replacing Avella, Smith and Klein with reliable, caucusing Democrats, picking off a Republican or two would deliver a Democratic Senate to go along with Cuomo and a bulletproof Democratic majority in the state Assembly.
Published sources say de Blasio helped broker the deal with the rationale that a unified Democratic Caucus with no Republicans in positions of power is best suited for getting much of his agenda through the Legislature in the next two years.
Koppell said on his website in June that the Klein-Cuomo agreement was just a ploy by IDC members to avoid primary challenges.
Then on Monday, Local 32BJ of the powerful Service Employees Union International announced it was endorsing Klein in the 34th District, and remaining neutral in the Liu-Avella matchup in the 11th.
Then de Blasio and the Working Families Party on Tuesday afternoon dropped anvils on Liu and Koppell.
Both said they intend to stick the race out until the primary on Sept. 9.
But Klein has reiterated that the IDC will remain intact. And some Queens political watchers are still not certain that anything can yet be read into just how strong the IDC will be come Jan. 1.
“I’m not watching the race closely, but I think Koppell has an uphill battle,” said Professor Brian Browne, assistant vice president for governmental relations at St. John’s University.
He was speaking on Monday, 24 hours before de Blasio and the WFP made their announcements.
Browne seemed to like an Avella-Liu match-up.
“Avella is very popular in his district,” he said. “Liu is a good fundraiser, and he has good name recognition.”
Liu also has some strong backing from the Queens Democratic Party, Borough President Melinda Katz and important labor unions.
“But the power of incumbency is huge,” Browne added. “A lot will come down to fundraising.”
Not that he feels either is likely to help Smith.
“His legal problems aren’t gone — just delayed,” Browne said.
As for the IDC as a group, Browne said Republican results in November will have a huge impact on things.
“I’m curious about what happens in the event Republicans gain [numerical] control,” Browne said. “What does the IDC do then?”
Scott Reif, a spokesman for the state Senate Republicans, said the GOP has little interest in injecting itself into internal Democratic squabbles.
He indirectly suggested that Browne is asking the right question.
“We expect to win back seats and be in the clear majority,” Reif said. “Certainly we are proud of some of the things we have accomplished in working with the IDC in the last few years — like four years with on-time budgets, putting the brakes on reckless spending and cutting taxes.”
Reif said Republicans expect to retain all nine seats in Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties, and feel they can gain seats in the Hudson Valley and upstate.