Blue America's normal job is to vet candidates in House races-- and occasionally in Senate races-- and endorse the progressive cream of the crop. We'll occasionally stray from that mission when we find an especially important state legislative race. That's why we've joined other progressives backing Oliver Koppell in the Bronx this year.
A key test of the power of political blackmail is taking shape in his state Senate race. The New York State Senate had been under Republican control for decades until 2008, when a majority of Democrats were elected. However, because small factions of conservative state senators elected as Democrats have split off and voted with Republicans, the balance of power has been constantly shifting between Democrats and Republicans. The latest developments place in question which party will control the state Senate after the November elections.
State Senator Jeffrey Klein, who deserted his Democratic Senate colleagues with three other "Democratic" senators in 2012 to vote with Senate Republicans, is now extorting a leadership position with mainstream Senate Democrats as a price for returning to the Democratic fold.
Incredibly, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, and-- even more distressingly-- the Mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio, are supporting-- encouraging-- Klein’s cynical power play. Standing in the way of Klein continuing in office after betraying his Democratic colleagues and blocking a progressive Democratic agenda is Oliver Koppell, a former New York State Attorney General, State Assembly Member, and New York City Council Member. Koppell is running against Klein in the September 9th primary to determine the Democratic candidate.
Supporting Oliver’s campaign for the 34th district will send a strong message that political blackmail cannot work. It will also assure that a real liberal Democrat with an actual progressive vision will occupy the Senate seat in the 34th-- a wide swath of gerrymandered district that includes Throggs Neck, Riverdale, Pelham Bay, Hunts Point, Van Cortlandt Village, Kingsbridge and a slice of southern Westchester County.
The history here once again demonstrates that truth can be stranger than fiction.
The story begins in 2004, when Jeffrey Klein was elected to fill the seat of Republican ex-state Senator Guy Velella, who left office after pleading guilty to taking bribes. Klein, then an Assembly Member, was elected in a primary against Stephen Kaufman, another Democratic Assemblyman. The key issue in that campaign was whether Kaufman would vote with Republicans who were then in the majority in the State Senate. Kaufman received campaign assistance from Republicans. Klein pledged, if elected, to be a loyal Democrat. Klein won the Senate seat.
Democrats remained in the minority in the State Senate until 2008, when a majority of State Senators were Democrats. However, four Democratic senators, known as the “Four Amigos,” negotiated back and forth between Democrats and Republicans in order to advance their positions, power and personal careers. As a result, for much of the two years that Democrats held the majority, there was a legislative stalemate. Ultimately, however, the “Amigos” joined the Democrats, although 3 of the 4 rare now in prison on various corruption charges.
For the 2010 legislative elections, Klein became Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee-- a kind of mini-Steve Israel, and every bit as venal and incompetent. Despite spending millions, and putting the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee in debt, the Democrats lost the majority in the 2010 elections.
In early 2011, Klein, who had campaigned across the state for a Democratic majority, deserted the Democratic party and, with three Democratic colleagues, joined the majority Republicans in order to gain positions and power. They called themselves the “IDC” (Independent Democratic Conference.)
To everyone’s surprise, in the 2012 legislative election, Democrats, including Klein, won a majority of seats in the State Senate. Klein sought to become Majority Leader of the Democrats, but failed. State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, an African-American Senator from Westchester County, was elected to lead the Democrats. Instead of accepting the results of a Democratic selection process, Klein and three IDC colleagues made a deal with Dean Skelos, the Republican leader, to keep the Republicans in power. Under the deal, Skelos and Klein were designated Co-Presidents of the Senate. As a result, Dean Skelos and the Republicans still held essential control, and progressive legislation has been blocked from passage for the past two years.
Blocked measures include campaign finance reform, including public financing of state campaigns; an increase in the minimum wage; the Women’s Equality agenda; and the DREAM Act, enabling the children of undocumented immigrants to apply for state financial aid for college. All of these measures had overwhelming support in the Democratic-controlled State Assembly but were not enacted in the Senate because of Klein's deal with Skelos.
Because of Klein’s power and influence, many feared that his partnership with Skelos would go unchallenged. However, at the urging of state Senate Democrats, representatives of the Working Families Party, union leaders, and other progressives, Oliver Koppell announced that he would challenge Klein in the Democratic primary.
Facing the possibility of defeat by Koppell, particularly due to the threats by several powerful unions, Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio to support Koppell, Klein agreed to switch his allegiance and vote with Senate Democrats beginning in 2015-- provided that he would be anointed Co-President of the Senate (now with Andrea Stewart-Cousins rather than with Dean Skelos.) Unfortunately-- and incredibly-- this extortionist demand has been accepted by the Governor, the Mayor and union leaders.
Stabbed in the back by the Working Families Party, Cuomo and De Blasio, Koppell now faces a major uphill battle. However, if the history of Klein’s betrayal and the damage it has caused can be brought to the attention of Democratic voters, Klein’s career can be brought to an end.
I spoke with Koppell on the phone yesterday and he assured me that even in the face of opposition by the Governor, the Mayor and politically powerful unions, he pledges to stay in the race and beat Klein at the ballot box in September.