Almost a month after November’s election, the leadership of New York’s state Senate has finally been decided. The method for the decision was decidedly unusual.
The Independent Democratic Conference, a now-permanent caucus of breakaway Democrats, will share power with the Republicans in the Senate. In a move that will require rewriting the Senate’s rules, the position of Senate president will alternate biweekly between IDC head Jeff Klein and Republican conference leader Dean Skelos. Klein and Skelos will share authority over the daily Senate agenda, the budget, and the appointment of committee and leadership positions.
How well this new arrangement will work in practice remains to be seen. Reactions outside the Senate have been mixed. Steven Greenberg, a pollster for Siena College, told Bloomberg, “It’s easy to craft a press release. It’s much harder to actually implement.” Bruce Gyory, a Democratic consultant and political science professor, noted that there is no precedent for this sort of power sharing, though that doesn’t mean it can’t work. Another Democratic consultant, Michael Tobman, said, “Creativity is the foundation of innovative governing. Let’s see how this works.”
It should be an interesting show. This arrangement will be an experiment in coalition government, almost akin to a parliamentary system. Republicans will rely on votes from the breakaway Democrats in order to maintain control of the Senate, meaning Republicans will have to accept some Democratic priorities they may not much like. But they will not be entirely hostage to their partners in the IDC either, because these Democrats now have no way out. If they go back to their own caucus, they are likely to spend the rest of their Albany careers in a political wilderness as punishment for their perceived betrayal. If they abandon their Republican allies, after all, there are only five of them.
In any case, New York Republicans are a comparatively moderate breed. And Governor Andrew Cuomo is trying to keep to a centrist path, given his national ambitions. It probably serves his purposes to continue to demonstrate that he can govern along with a legislature under divided partisan control. The current occupant of the White House, who Cuomo may hope to succeed, has shown little talent in this area.
The real test of Cuomo’s ability to lead under these conditions will come next spring: whether he and the legislature can again deliver an on-time budget, which was as rare in Albany as a unicorn sighting before Cuomo took office. A repeat performance would be a solid demonstration of the long-term feasibility of the Senate’s new leadership-by-coalition, as well as a solid political win for the governor.
Whether or not the experiment works, there will be some who remain unhappy with this outcome.
Mainstream Senate Democrats and their allies lost no time playing the race card, complaining to The New York Times last week that the defectors’ alliance with the GOP deprives minority politicians of the spoils they believe are rightfully theirs. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has never held elective office (though not for lack of trying, with aborted runs for president, New York City mayor and three races for the U.S. Senate), called for a rally against the legislative coalition.
Apart from Senate Democrats, the biggest losers in this coalition may be Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his fellow Assembly Democrats, who are of a much more orthodox liberal bent than their counterparts. They are likely to find themselves, once again, constrained by a Senate effectively under Republican control.
An interesting footnote to the New York story came earlier this week, when two Democrats in Washington’s state Senate defected to the Republican Party, giving the GOP a 25-24 edge in that chamber, according to The Washington Post. One of the defecting senators, Rodney Tom, extracted a pledge from Republicans to make him their party’s majority leader, which will require changing Senate rules when the legislature convenes.
Compared to the surprise in Olympia, or even the New York Senate’s own sordid recent history, the new alliance between the rebel Democrats and the Albany Republicans seems as straightforward as a high school civics class. I hope it works out that way. New York is a state that could use a hefty dose of good government.