Four Men in a Room: How the Independent Democratic Conference Did New Yorkers Wrong

Voters handed Democrats the State Senate, then Democrats gave it away

Jeffrey D. Klein (Getty)
Jeffrey D. Klein (Getty)

The millennium arrived sometime during the day of December 4, when New York State Senator Jeffrey D. Klein led his spanking new Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) over to the Republican side of the aisle.

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Talk about the rapidly approaching Mayan apocalypse! Mr. Klein, a Bronx Democrat, assures us that he and four fellow Democrats will soon pass much of the liberal agenda in New York…by keeping majority leader Dean G. Skelos and his fellow Republicans in charge.

“Working with the governor and our colleague, I know that we will pass some major progressive reforms, such as an increase to the minimum wage, a reform of stop-and-frisk and serious campaign finance reform,” Mr. Klein told The New York Times, while posing heroically between old campaign posters for both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Vliet Lindsay.

Yes, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb—though as Woody Allen added, the lamb won’t get much sleep.

Under their power-sharing arrangement, the Republicans and the IDC are supposed to have “joint and equal authority,” with Mr. Klein and Mr. Skelos alternating as temporary president of the state senate. It’s an arrangement being touted by many as a means of finally breaking Albany’s perpetual gridlock, which dates back to approximately 1540.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie A. Miner, recently installed as Democratic state co-chairwoman by Governor Andrew Cuomo, claimed that she saw the new arrangement as “a pathway out of dysfunction,” while Mr. Cuomo himself, allegedly a Democrat, reacted by proclaiming that he was willing to work with anyone, and that, “I don’t get hung up on politics.”

Well, sure. Why get all hung up over, y’know, politics, when you’re a governor?

This now marks the second time in four years that voters have made history by handing all three branches of the state government over to one party—only to see the Democrats punt their power away. The nonpartisan millennium was originally heralded just after the 2008 elections, when the party took control of the senate for the first time since 1964. But rather than trying to enact any of the social justice legislation they had been advocating for decades, Democrats decided to fight over who was in charge. Employing reformist rhetoric similar to what we’re hearing now, the “gang of four” Democratic senators from the city—Pedro Espada, Jr., Rev. Ruben Diaz, Sr., Carl Kruger, and Hiram Montserrate—broke away from the party and threatened to make their own deal with Republicans.

In fact, the gang of four’s attempted coup might best be described as “a pathway out of jail.” For the most part, it failed. Even by Albany standards, “the four amigos,” as Rev. Diaz prefers to call them, set new lows in sleaze, corruption, and general hate-mongering. Mr. Montserrate was expelled from the senate after being convicted of a nauseating assault on his girlfriend. Mr. Kruger—a closeted gay man who voted against gay marriage—got seven years in the state pen for accepting over $1 million in bribes. Mr. Espada awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to swiping nearly half a million dollars in Medicaid funds intended for his chain of health-care clinics, a feat accomplished by viciously ripping off patients and employees alike.

Only Mr. Diaz—a man who once made a speech on the senate floor calling Americans worse than Hitler for allowing abortions—remains in office and unindicted.

The renegade legislators spent months trying to sell their allegiances to the highest bidder, while further masking their true goals under the rhetoric of ethnic grievance. The four amigos claimed that Latinos would be shut out of leadership in Albany if the traditional “three men in a room” that decide everything there consisted of the senate Democratic leader, Malcolm Smith, who happened to be black; state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, and then-governor David Paterson. In the end, they went back to the Democrats after replacing Mr. Smith with Senator John Sampson…who is also black.

Disgusted voters swept the Republicans back into power in 2010—only to sweep them out once more. And now the race card is being played again, as Rev. Al Sharpton has entered the fray—oh, joy—to claim that African Americans will be disenfranchised if Mr. Klein joins Mssrs. Skelos, Silver, and Cuomo as the fourth man in the room.

Mr. Klein and the three other white senators in his IDC promptly went out and cynically added to their ranks…Malcolm Smith, who has been openly pondering a run for mayor on the Republican line. This undermined any claims they might have had to being real reformers, as the ethically porous Mr. Smith has been investigated for his role in trying to steer a massive state contract for a “racino” at the Aqueduct Racetrack to a favored bidder.

The Big A is proving to be the black hole of New York politics, sucking in and crushing all who approach it. Also under investigation for bid-fixing at Aqueduct has been…John Sampson. The racino debacle put the final nail in the coffin of David Paterson’s disastrous governorship, and nearly capsized longtime Queens powerbroker and former congressman Rev. Floyd Flake. Gov. Cuomo’s attempt to replace the whole racino idea with a huge convention center/gambling complex—a complex that would be developed and run by one of his major campaign donors—has already proved a risible flop.

It’s no coincidence that so many of our leading pols have found themselves irresistibly drawn to the assorted Aqueduct scams. Gambling is not a growth industry. It’s a cancer, one that feeds addiction and funnels billions of dollars from the poor, the lonely, and the desperate to a wealthy few. It’s the sort of brain-dead idea that—in an age of technological wonders—is all the insulated deal-makers who run the state of New York can come up with for our future.

Mr. Klein’s nonpartisan posturing won’t cut through that insulation, only add more layers than Bob Vila. You can rest assured that his supposed liberal agenda will never see the light of day in Albany without a conservative quid pro quo—a racino here, a little fracking there, etc. A system where party labels and platforms and promises mean absolutely nothing—where there is, in essence, one big party—is one that will usher in a politics of meaninglessness, where corruption is free to flourish as never before and democracy is a cynical charade.

Or as the Rev. Ruben Diaz posted on his website last week, “Diaz to IDC: you’ve vindicated the ‘Four Amigos.’ ”

Four Men in a Room: How the Independent Democratic Conference Did New Yorkers Wrong