By MICHAEL GARETH JOHNSON
It has been 10 years since the historic general election night when Barack Obama scored an overwhelming victory. That same night, back in New York, there was another historic moment as Democrats took control of the state Senate. Party leader Malcolm Smith proudly strolled to the podium to announce the narrow victory. He’d later be sentenced to seven years in prison.
The hope for change that permeated the nation that year was palpable among Democrats in the state Senate. They were eager to come in and implement many of the progressive things they had always hoped to do. The problem was that we were in the middle of an economic crisis—one that hit New York State especially hard as Wall Street essentially collapsed.
Democrats who had promised their constituents many things when they took control of the chamber quickly realized as the 2009 budget negotiations began that they were not going to be able to deliver. There was just no money.
One of the people most bitter about this turn of events was Pedro Espada, recently elected after defeating Efrain Gonzalez in a primary. Gonzalez was under indictment for mail fraud at the time and would later be sentenced to seven years in prison.
The disgruntled Espada would go on to create a crisis in Albany, choosing to leave the Democratic party briefly in June of 2009 and join Republicans, in what is referred to by most capital reporters and politicos as “the coup.” The move stalled government until July 2009, when Espada cut a deal with Democrats to come back into the fold—with a new position of power. Espada would later be sentenced to five years in prison on federal corruption charges.
“The coup” also resulted in the rise of John Sampson, who was named the new Democratic leader of the Senate, functionally replacing Malcolm Smith, who retained the “majority leader” title. Sampson was later expelled from the Senate for obstruction of justice and sentenced to five years in prison.
In the 2010 elections, Democrats lost control of the state Senate. It’s not hard to see why. The Democratic Conference moved quickly in the days after the election to vote for John Sampson as their leader once again.
A few months later, when lawmakers returned to Albany in January 2011, state Sen. Jeff Klein created the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). He was joined by Sen. Diane Savino, his girlfriend; Sen. David Valesky, representing a competitive seat in the Syracuse area who saw Sampson’s election as a political liability; and David Carlucci, a newly elected member who said he joined the IDC because he wasn’t allowed to vote or speak up against Sampson’s election. The Democratic Conference leadership didn’t even let him participate.
At the time, I was the executive producer of Capital Tonight, a political television program that airs across Upstate New York. I remember speaking to Klein a few hours after he made the announcement, right before he taped a segment. I doubt my memory is exactly correct, but what I recall of the conversation is Klein’s saying something like, “It feels great to get the fuck away from those criminals.”
We’ve learned since then that Klein’s motivations to create the IDC weren’t purely noble. In fact, he gained more influence over how things operate; was able to secure more funding for his district; got a bigger office in Albany; and there have been several reports suggesting Gov. Cuomo may have spurred on Klein to do this to help make things run more smoothly in the Senate and allow Cuomo to more easily advance much of his agenda.
Since then, the Democratic state Senate conference has cleaned itself up. The decent and hardworking public servants in the body have slowly removed lots of bad apples.
It can be reasonably argued that in the 2014 election cycle, the conference was corruption free and the IDC should have rejoined. The same argument can definitely apply to the 2016 election cycle. Some Progressives have argued that the conference is complicit in preventing Democrats from taking back control in those cycles—but that is an oversimplification of what occurred, as well as an overestimation of the IDC’s influence and power.
This year, we are seeing IDC candidates taking a lot of heat for being members of this conference. Some Democrats are labeling them traitors. I’d urge those choosing to castigate their fellow Democrats who were part of the IDC to be careful with how they try to rewrite history. While there are ample reasons to oppose the individual IDC members in primary contests, it doesn’t serve you well to label the whole batch as bad when the conference was born out of a desire of four members to escape the corrupt cesspool that was the 2009-2010 state Senate Democratic Conference.
Manipulating the truth to win elections or “motivate the base” often has consequences — manifesting itself as diminished credibility that makes it harder to be effective. In the final weeks of the campaign, candidates shouldn’t forget this.