What Klein delivered for progressives, and what he didn’t

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Jeff Klein opposes the elimination of a dedicated bank tax. (Jimmy Vielkind)
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ALBANY—The optics were unmistakable, and obviously crafted: Senate Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein, shoulder to shoulder with union-backed progressive advocates who just nine months ago were getting arrested outside his office as they denounced him as a sell-out.

As leader of the five-member breakaway faction that allied with Republicans to form the chamber's governing coalition (and keep Democrats from assuming the control that should have accompanied their mathematical majority), Klein has been justifying the partnership since it formed in 2012 as a win for progressives, rather than as a means of self-empowerment.

In the last week, he flexed some muscle, pushing for action on the DREAM Act, public campaign finance and funding for a pre-kindergarten expansion that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed for.

The result was mixed, and the consensus is that it's too early to say if Klein has sufficiently delivered to give himself electoral cover. But he's won some potentially important praise.

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“Under Conference Leaders Klein and Skelos, the state senate’s majority has put forward an unprecedented commitment to fund free, full-day pre-K for every child in New York City, and after-school programs for every middle schooler,” de Blasio said in a statement.

The press conference was Klein's first public appearance in several days, and its ostensible purpose was to bask in liberal praise for his rejection of change to the bank tax proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Liberals called it an “Albany bailout for Wall Street banks,” that Klein replaced with a program of paid family leave.

“He has worked to achieve progress in the Senate one-house budget resolution,” said Michael Kink, leader of A Strong Economy for All, a labor-backed coalition.

But how did Klein do on his big issues?

The budget resolution, released late Thursday, makes no reference to the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants to access state-funded college tuition assistance programs. It has a de minimus reference to public campaign finance, saying only that the Senate will “modify” Cuomo's proposal, which includes a matching system for small donors similar to what is in place in New York City. (The Democrat-dominated Assembly's resolution embraces both.)

Democratic senator Jose Peralta said he would be holding Klein's feet to the fire to make sure the DREAM Act comes to the floor, as the senator has committed.

Jessica Wisneski, the legislative and campaign director for Citizen Action, said she was holding out for a mention of campaign finance, and, again, would push to see it through in the overall budget.

The clearest win for Klein was probably on pre-K funding. Klein at one point suggested he would hold up the overall budget if it didn't contain de Blasio's tax plan, but with the mayor now signaling that he'll be content with just the state money, Klein gets to be a champion. (De Blasio also rejoiced when the Assembly did what the Senate didn't, by including his tax plan.)

Essentially, Klein compressed the fight that normally comes ahead of the late March budget deadline to the normally yawn-inducing process of a budget resolution. It may or may not color what the next two weeks bring.

“The fact that it was so difficult to arrive at a one house budget signals how difficult a budget negotiation it's going to be,” said Steve Greenberg of the Siena Research Institute, a nonpartisan polling outfit. “He's trying to appeal to someone on the left, a la de Blasio, but the main thing for Klein is to make sure that neither the Democrats or the Republicans can reach 32 votes without him. He has a constituency of four members, essentially.”

And months until November.