Top Breakaway Democrat Favors G.O.P. Coalition in State Senate
By THOMAS KAPLAN
November 27, 2012
Jeffrey D. Klein has been taking calls from labor leaders and rank-and-file state senators. He ate pasta with the Senate majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, a Republican from Long Island. And he sat down, he said, to “clear the air” with the minority leader, John L. Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat.
For three weeks, Senator Klein has been at once a sought-after and resented man in Albany. When the State Legislature reconvenes in January, he could hold the Senate’s fate in his hands: he leads a breakaway faction of four fellow Democrats who are poised to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the Senate Republicans.
The exact makeup of the Senate will not be known until the last ballots are counted in two still-unresolved races. But regardless of the outcomes, only a seat or two will separate the two parties, and Mr. Klein is pushing for what he described as a “bipartisan coalition,” made up of his breakaway foursome and the Senate Republican caucus, to control the Senate.
“I think we can actually show that our democracy in New York State does not have to be chaotic,” Mr. Klein said in an interview in his district office in the Bronx on Tuesday. “It could work, Democrats and Republicans working together to get things done.”
Democrats emerged from Election Day claiming to have won a majority in the Senate — which had been controlled by Republicans — but their chances at running the chamber have diminished.
The Democratic candidate is leading in one of the two unresolved races. But the other Democratic candidate who held a narrow lead on Election Day, Cecilia F. Tkaczyk of Schenectady County, has been overtaken by the Republican during ballot counting that is not yet complete, leaving the outcome in doubt.
One Democratic senator-elect, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, has already said that he would support Republican control of the chamber.
Mr. Klein has largely stayed out of the public eye since the Nov. 6 election left control of the Senate in dispute. But in the interview, he made clear that the independent Democrats were not interested in reuniting with their colleagues behind a Democratic Senate leader. Democrats had a majority in the Senate in 2009 and 2010, when Mr. Klein was deputy leader, but their control of the chamber was hampered by an embarrassing coup and infighting.
“We can’t go back to the days of dysfunction,” Mr. Klein said. “We can’t go back to the days of relying on every single Democrat to get things done, ignoring the other side completely, jamming through a legislative agenda which doesn’t have bipartisan support.”
Mr. Klein formed his Independent Democratic Conference in January 2011 with three others: David Carlucci of Rockland County, who at 31 is the youngest member of the Senate; Diane J. Savino, a former labor activist who represents parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn; and David J. Valesky of the Syracuse area.
Mr. Klein outlined a system in which the leaders of the Republican caucus and the Independent Democratic Conference would work together to run the Senate, with joint control over committee agendas, the bills that are taken up on the floor and state budget negotiations.
The “time has come for coalition government,” Mr. Klein said. “On the political end, it’s always going to be close in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans. So it just makes sense to have some type of coalition government to remove the politics — the constant hyperpartisan bickering — and get things done in a bipartisan fashion.”
Democrats and some liberal leaders have accused Mr. Klein of wanting nothing more than to amass power for himself.
But Mr. Klein said that was not his motivation. He wants his group “to be influential, yes, but influential on policy,” he said — and he rejected the suggestion that he was somehow betraying Democrats. “We’re not empowering a Republican majority; we’re talking about a coalition government,” he said, adding, “I consider myself a very good Democrat.”
Mr. Klein, noting that same-sex marriage was defeated when Democrats controlled the Senate and then approved under Republican control, said he believed that a coalition government would also have a better chance of passing legislation sought by liberals, like an increase in the minimum wage, an overhaul of campaign-finance laws and reproductive-health measures.
Senator Michael N. Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who led his party’s campaign effort, disagreed.“The only way that the truly progressive agenda can be enacted is with a real Democratic majority,” Mr. Gianaris said.
“Senator Klein’s career has been one that has been true to Democratic values, and I would hope that we would find a way to come together in the best interest of the people of the state, because on issue after issue, it’s the Senate Republicans that have stood in the way of progress, and that’s not going to change,” he added.
But Republicans, who are eager to retain control of the Senate in a state where Democratic voters dominate the electorate, have embraced the independent Democrats. Senator Skelos described Mr. Klein as a “serious and effective legislator.”
“Together, we’ve ended the dysfunction in the Senate,” Mr. Skelos said, adding, “I expect to continue working with him to deliver the bipartisan results New Yorkers need and deserve.”