This is a revolution? Jeff Klein’s Independent Democrats rise up, then settle down

The Independent Democratic Conference of the State Senate. ()
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ALBANY—The State Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference was waiting upstairs in an unadorned Capitol conference room on a recent Wednesday, during the hangover period between the budget and the end of the legislative session. They were about to issue their 15th report since seceding from the troubled Democratic conference in January. The room was their de facto headquarters.

The unveiling of reports has been a weekly event for this four-member faction within the 62-member Senate, meant to demonstrate their intention to operate outside the closed-door conference sessions of the two parties. Early on, each appearance by the IDC quartet of Jeff Klein, Diane Savino, and David Carlucci and David Valesky was an occasion for reporters to pepper them with questions about politics: Will you align yourselves more closely with the Republicans or the Democrats? Didn’t you run away from a giant campaign debt, Senator Klein, that you helped create? What is your relationship with Cuomo?

But that has faded. The IDC, as they call themselves (they were recently parodied at the Legislative Correspondents Association show as Klavinoluccilesky, set to a Mary Poppins tune), has for the moment become an unremarkable fact of life.

They are not remaking the political order in Albany—they are taking part in it, one incremental legislative achievement at a time. One of their recent proposals was for a set of incentives IDC for farm breweries; during other sessions, they introduced reports on the topics of consolidating the state's system of inspectors general and on the economic benefits of same-sex marriage.

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“In some ways it’s a more comfortable spot because the partisanship has been turned down, certainly in our lives, which allows us to focus on substantive issues that we think are important, whether we are in the mix, or whether we are on the sidelines advocating,” Savino, an Astoria-born Democrat representing northern Staten Island and parts of South Brooklyn, told me a few days later.

Actually, though, being in the mix was the entire point of this exercise, which essentially began as an expression of Klein's frustration with his party and with his place in it. A former Assemblyman who won his Senate seat after a primary, Klein wears his ambition on his sleeve. He rose to be the Democratic conference’s deputy leader, running action on the floor, and chaired the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

But he was blocked, time and again, from taking the reins of the Democratic conference and in 2008, when the Democrats finally won a 32-30 majority in the Senate, from becoming one of the Three Men in a Room.

He responded by forming his own power center within the party, rallying a clique of like-minded senators that contributed to the factionalization of the Democratic caucus. The result was two years of chaos that bedeviled Albany stalwarts and left them quietly longing for the benevolent dictatorship of Republicans, who might have been unprincipled and mightily self-interested but could at least be counted upon to deliver when they made a deal.

After a net loss of two Democrats in the 2010 elections, Klein’s future looked bleak. He had been in charge of the conference’s political operation, and fingers were starting to point.

It was time for Klein to go. So he cajoled his girlfriend Savino along with Valesky and an incoming freshman, Carlucci , to join him.

They are an interesting bunch, temperamentally. While Klein is icily driven, Carlucci is aggressively friendly, always making an effort to say hello to professional acquaintances across a busy room. Valesky has that same homespun, Ned Flanders charm; you feel bad cursing in front of him. One of his campaign ads noted that he was the kid who would shovel your driveway after a snowstorm for a couple of bucks.

Savino and Klein were that couple that everyone knew was making out well before they admitted it. Savino is the Senate’s collective big sister, yelling at all the boys (Klein included) to straighten their ties, to vote to keep the seniority system for teacher layoffs and, if they like that girl, to call her the next day.

The four of them hired Rich Azzopardi, the Ewok-like chief of staff to their old compatriot Craig Johnson, as their political and press aide. (Azzopardi is aware of the resmblence—he had it as his Gchat picture "for several months,” he said. Also, this weekend, he grabbed a kitchen knife and foiled a rape outside his house. Do you need to ask if he did stand-ups for the 11 o’clock news?)

When they declared their independence from a Democratic caucus that was already dispirited and in the minority, the Senate barely blinked. There was nothing like the outcry that had occurred a couple of years earlier when self-styled renegade "amigos" Hiram Monserrate and Pedro Espada bolted the Democratic caucus, throwing power to the Republicans.

Nevertheless, Klein's crew benefited from a short-term payoff. The Republicans, fresh from a two-year case study in the problems of a bare 32-seat majority, courted them hard. They were given committee assignments and an office on the Capitol’s fifth floor, and they were allowed to sit together in the chamber. It looked, to some of their former colleagues, as if they had allowed themselves to be co-opted by the side with the power.

The IDC members, not surprisingly, bristle at this characterization.

“They would like that to be the case, because that would simplify what they think would be a rejection of them,” Savino said of her Democratic former colleagues, adding that their tenure had been "a disaster.”

“We could have either gone back into the minority and allowed the dysfunction to continue and been expected to raise the money, to be the face of the conference and get people to vote for us, or we could say, ‘It’s enough already. Go reform yourselves,’" Savino said. "It’s like a 12-step program for the Democratic conference.”

But they do work closely with Republicans, providing a cushion when the G.O.P. senators voted to strip the tiebreaking powers of the Democratic lieutenant governor Bob Duffy and to approve the Republican budget.

Often, Klein is seen coordinating with Senate Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous of Binghamton. And Libous, perhaps not coincidentally, had positive (although not so positive as to be problematic) things to say about Klein's group.

“They have the respect of all of us,” he said. “It’s a truly independent operation, and we certainly work with them, talk to them, deal with them on different things. They have a very viable function here. They’ve been helpful to the majority on votes from time to time. I don’t want to say they’re being treated special … but they have shown that they have views that are closer to the Republican conference on many views and votes than they have with the existing Democratic conference.”

This is true and untrue. All four members of the group are moderates in their politics, representing districts filled with upper-middle-income suburbanites. Both Carlucci and Valesky have precarious districts; Carlucci’s win over Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef was one of the biggest surprises of the cycle.

But their working relationship with the Republicans is not an alliance of ideology, and won't last any longer than its immediate, practical usefulness to them. In 2012, Barack Obama will be on top of the ticket and Democrats will stand a good chance of reprising their gains in 2008, when they won the majority.

There are now 26 regular Democrats. If they win between two and six seats in this election, they’ll need to bring the IDC back into the fold to cobble together a 32-seat majority. Republicans would have the same option, of course, and as Libous' solicitous words indicate, they will be making their own overtures. But the Democrats should have the edge in a bidding war, since the electoral math will probably be much easier for each of the members in their own districts if they're running as Democrats against Republicans than the other way around.

And, of course, there’s lots of precedent for this in the Senate. Pedro Espada, Carl Kruger, Hiram Monserrate and Ruben Diaz Sr. declared themselves an island right after the 2008 elections, finally extorting nicer titles and committee stipends for themselves. Espada and Monserrate repeated the trick in June, 2009, when they defected to the Republican caucus. Espada was made majority leader. In 2010, he was indicted on federal corruption charges.

“My hope is, when it comes time for us to take back control of the house that they will come back home and be part of the Democratic family,” said Sen. Kevin Parker, a Democratic from Brooklyn. “I think if we got to that scenario, we’d find a way to resolve our differences.”

Until then, the Independent Democrats will stay in the attic, proposing things that practically beg you not to write about them. Savino, whose district contains no farms, read from prepared remarks, her fingernails a newly manicured Barbie pink, touching at the tips. An aide typed during their announcement.

There were signs guiding visitors from the elevators to the conference room. The walls were mostly bare, adorned with only a row of 8x10 portraits of the IDC’s members.

There’s a microwave holding up a half-empty case of Pepsi Max. It sits on top of a mini-fridge adorned with a “Senator Libous!” sticker.

I asked about the status of the IDC's larger argicultural agenda, if there was one.

“Well my bill has already passed,” Klein said, deadpan.

“And as you know,” Valesky added cheerfully, “all of our reports are forwarded to Majority Leader Skelos.”