Simcha Felder Tells Fellow Rogue Democrats to Rejoin the Party Fold

May 29, 2017

The New York Times

https://nyti.ms/2qWLApo

N.Y. / REGION

By JESSE McKINLEY MAY 24, 2017

ALBANY — The call for a breakaway faction of Democrats in the State Senate to

abandon its Republican allies and rejoin the party’s fold picked up a surprising

supporter on Wednesday: Senator Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who also

sides with the Republicans.

Mr. Felder sent a letter urging Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, the leader of the faction,

the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference, to “unconditionally and

publicly rejoin the Democrats.”

The letter, dated Wednesday, was all the more striking because it came from Mr.

Felder, who, within days of being elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 2012,

declared that he would caucus with the Republicans.

It was unclear whether Mr. Felder’s call for the Independent Democratic

Conference to reunite with the mainline Democrats would mean that he, too, would

consider leaving the Republican conference. But his letter articulated a frustration

with the tactics of the Independent Democratic Conference, which has grown in size

and influence in recent months.

“Who are you to decide what the legislative priorities are for loyal Democrats across

New York State?” Mr. Felder wrote, urging Mr. Klein to “unify with your Democrat

colleagues and not just highlight a handful of issues that attempt to distinguish you

from the Republican conference.”

Mr. Felder’s letter may further complicate the perplexing political calculus in the

Senate, which has been the scene of high drama in the last decade and simmering

tension during the tenure of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who took office in 2011, the year

that Mr. Klein and the Independent Democratic Conference split from the main group

of Democrats in Albany.

Since then, the conference has helped Republicans rule, entering into a powersharing

agreement in 2012 and often garnering perks like larger offices and staffs. The

partnership has continued even though there have sometimes technically been more

Democrats in the Senate, if Mr. Felder and the conference members are counted.

With the election on Tuesday of Brian Benjamin to fill a vacant seat in Harlem,

Democrats again hold a numerical majority, 32 to 31. But the mainline Democrats

hold only 23 seats, after subtracting the eight Independent Democratic Conference

members and Mr. Felder.

On Monday, Mr. Klein’s group began a campaign, Call the Roll, that asked

Democrats to sign a pledge to uphold seven “key progressive issues,” including ones

that have not been embraced by their Republican colleagues, like the expansion of

abortion rights, public campaign finance and single-payer health care. The campaign

was christened with a three-and-a-half-minute promotional video and a letter to all

Democrats, including Mr. Felder, who Mr. Klein has previously said was responsible

for tipping the balance of power in the Senate.

But Mr. Felder apparently did not appreciate the letter.

“I am in receipt of your unity pledge letter,” he wrote, adding, “And if it was not

such a serious matter, I might find the letter entertaining, but I do not believe in

misleading people.”

Shortly after Mr. Felder’s letter became public, the Independent Democratic

Conference shot back, suggesting Mr. Felder — who sits in conference with

Republicans — had shown his true political self.

“It’s telling that Simcha Felder didn’t sign the pledge,” said Candice Giove, a

spokeswoman for the conference. “We now see where he stands on these seven crucial

issues.”

Mr. Felder did not return a call seeking comment, but his office said that “his

letter speaks for itself.”

Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said that “Senator Felder is a

valued and trusted member of our conference,” adding that “working together, we

have been able to accomplish many great things.”

Criticism of the Independent Democratic Conference intensified after the election

of President Trump and the group’s collaboration with John J. Flanagan, the Long

Island Republican who leads the Senate. Such criticisms have been given a new thrust

this month as a series of articles in The New York Times revealed that three members

of the Independent Democratic Conference received tens of thousands of dollars in

stipends earmarked for other lawmakers, after being falsely identified as committee

chairmen in payroll documents sent by Senate staff members. Five Republicans also

received the questionable stipends.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the leader of the Senate Democratic Conference, also

wrote to Mr. Klein and his members on Wednesday, asking them to unify “to pass

progressive legislation to resist Donald Trump and serve as a beacon to a weary

nation.” She asked the Independent Democratic Conference to pledge to reunite by

June 16.

The calls for unity were echoed by national Democrats. Representative Keith

Ellison of Minnesota, deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said

Mr. Benjamin’s election in Harlem meant Democrats must unite to “bring together a

Democratic majority in the New York State Senate.”

Mr. Felder’s letter concluded by suggesting he might unify with fellow

Democrats, too, if the conference did. Mr. Felder has previously said he would side

with whatever party would best serve his district, which includes a large population of

Orthodox Jews.

“I would welcome unity if it effectuates my priority to have the greatest positive

impact on my constituents and all New Yorkers,” he said.

A version of this article appears in print on May 25, 2017, on Page A25 of the New York edition with the

headline: State Senator Urges Other Rogue Democrats to Return to the Party Fold.

© 2017 The New York Times Company

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