Even if all the races in the state Senate are clearly decided on election night, control of the chamber with its perks and power could remain unknown well past Nov. 6.
That’s because the upstart Independent Democratic Conference holds four seats and potentially all the cards in the fight for the Senate majority now held by Republicans.
The conference is made up of Sens. Jeffrey Klein of the Bronx and Westchester, David Valesky of central New York, Diane Savino of Staten Island and David Carlucci of Orange County. They staged a risky and messy breakup with the Democratic conference on Jan. 5, 2011, shocking fellow Democrats already deflated over losing the majority after only one term in power.
The independent Democrats said they were fed up after two years of Democratic majority marked by a coup — led by Republicans and four dissident Democrats — followed by infighting and gridlock.
“Today, we’re declaring our independence,” Savino said at the time. “We can’t be part of leadership that is more intent on perks than policy.”
Since then, the rare break in the political structure has worked. In a place where party-line votes have been almost a sure thing for years, the four senators side often on fiscal issues with the Republican majority and on social issues with Democrats. But from the beginning, they made it clear they were supporting the mix of both, as sought by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The Independent Democratic Conference members say they won’t act as power brokers available to the highest bidder and have ruled out taking lucrative leadership posts.
Political consultant Bruce Gyory said the IDC was clearly potent in critical votes such as the Republican support of tight budgets and the Democrats’ win in the 2011 gay marriage vote.
But the real test comes after this election when they could hold all the power instead of mostly providing a cushion for Republicans. The IDC supports Cuomo’s major efforts that are expected to materialize in a December special session, including raising the minimum wage and overhauling campaign finance laws. Klein and Savino support a pay raise for legislators who have gone 13 years without one. Carlucci opposes it, and Valesky hasn’t taken a position yet.
Even if Democrats reverse the Republicans’ 33-29 majority in this year’s elections, they would still likely lack majority control because they couldn’t count on the IDC votes. Democrats would have to win perhaps a half-dozen more seats to have a clear majority, which political observers and early polls indicate is unlikely.
Republicans say they are confident they will win at least two more than the 32 seats needed to pick a majority leader to run the conference and control what legislation passes.
As for the Independent Democratic Conference, they say they remain Democrats so they aren’t expected to vote for a Republican majority leader. But as in 2011, they could simply vote for no one for majority leader.
But the Independent Democratic Conference isn’t exactly being targeted by Republicans.
Valesky faces no Republican challenger in his 53rd District, which includes the heavily Republican areas of Madison County and parts of Onondaga County. Klein is cross-endorsed on the Republican line. Carlucci has the critical endorsement of Cuomo against Janis Castaldi, a former Ossinging village trustee, and Savino faces previously little-known Republican Lisa Grey.
“I think over the next 10 years, you are going to see a Senate that is very closely divided,” Klein said Friday. “I think that makes the Independent Democratic Conference a permanent third conference.”
He said the point is to work with Republicans and Democrats to enact important legislation, like Cuomo does.
“This was never about making us politically relevant,” he said, “We wanted to be governmentally relevant.”
Both parties are keeping the lines of communication open with the four.
“Sen. Klein and I speak frequently,” said Republican Sen. Thomas Libous, the deputy majority leader from Broome County and head of the GOP campaign effort. “I’m sure that once the election is over, we will be able to sit down and talk about moving the state forward.”
Democrats also reject any murky future, predicting they will have 35 or 36 seats after the elections — including the IDC members. With the addition of a new district this year, the Senate will have 63 seats starting in January.
“We’ve been able to work closely and successfully with the independent Democrats to move this state forward,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, who heads the Democratic Senate campaign effort.
The IDC in two years is clearly established. Independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $75,000 to the IDC after giving each member the maximum $10,300 contribution. By comparison, the traditional Democratic conference is still paying down a debt, while Republicans have a 5-to-1 advantage in campaign cash.
Cuomo won’t say if he wants a Republican or Democratic Senate majority, an unusual position for the head of the state Democratic Party. Cuomo has endorsed Republican Sen. Stephen Saland of Poughkeepsie over his Democratic opponent, calling Saland a man of integrity and courage for voting for Cuomo’s same-sex marriage law.
“I want the Senate that the people of the state elect,” Cuomo said. “Party labels can often be misleading.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.