Unless you are an avid follower of New York politics, you might not have heard of the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) until very recently.
In fact, it has only been since the inauguration of Donald Trump in January this year that a spotlight has been shone on this group of eight renegade New York Democrats – who turned their backs on the party under whose banner they ran and now coalition with the Republicans.
Of the 63 state senators in the chamber, 32 are elected Democrats – giving that party a technical majority. However, the IDC’s defection has instead allowed the GOP, under the leadership of John Flanagan, to wield power in their stead.
This sounds absurd – how could a group of ostensibly progressive politicians hand the Republicans such a gift?
Many New Yorkers don’t believe there is a good enough answer. Since January, grassroots activists have waged a forceful campaign against the eight renegades – including protests outside their offices – demanding they rejoin the Democratic caucus.
In recent weeks, Democratic heavyweights have also begun to amp up their rhetoric against the IDC, claiming they are frustrating the wider party’s efforts to oppose the Trump-inspired Republican agenda.
Take the example of Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota who, addressing Harlem Democrats following the election of Brian Benjamin to the state senate on May 24, said that New York has: “the opportunity to become the seventh state in the nation with a completely Democratic state government. To accomplish that, the Democratic Party, which stands for working families, must unite in New York and everywhere”. This can only be read to be a thinly-veiled message to the IDC to get back in line.
New York state senate Democratic Conference leader Andrea Stewart Cousins, who would be Majority Leader if not for the IDC, is doing great job painting her erstwhile colleagues as self-serving – pointing out the perks IDC members receive from the Republicans such as stipends and larger offices. However, it seems that more than simple avarice is at work here.
Take Marisol Alcantara, the most recent addition to the IDC and state senator for the West Side of Manhattan. Alcantara is staunchly progressive. In November last year, immediately after the election, she appeared at the launch event of the New York Progressive Action Network, which promotes candidates who share the political platform of liberal superstar Bernie Sanders—who himself operates independently of the Democratic Party apparatus. Alcantara was even arrested at Trump Tower after protesting Trump on his inauguration.
The IDC is not shy about their progressive credentials, or of pointing out the shortcomings of those of the official Democrats. Just last week, the conference launched their “Call the Roll” appeal, calling on the 32 state senate Democrats to stand up for “key progressive issues” associated with the Bernie Sanders campaign – including single-payer health care, expanding abortion rights, and adopting public campaign financing.
“Thirty-two is not a magic number unless there are 32 Democrats who are ready to stand up and unite on policies that combat Donald Trump,” said IDC spokeswoman Candice Giove at the time of the announcement.
Through initiatives like “Call the Roll”, the IDC seeks to outflank Democrats from the left and blunt the impact of the numerous campaigns accusing them of being reactionary. By dealing with Republicans, they say, it has been easier for them to deliver on their promises to voters.
So a pact which to state Democrats looks like a deal with the devil has instead being framed as a courageous effort to break a years-long stalemate in Albany and force the Democratic Party to embrace a more liberal agenda.
Perhaps the IDC’s actions aren’t too dissimilar form those taken by Bernie Sander and Keith Ellison, who also felt the Democratic National Committee was holding back, rather than driving forward, a progressive vision for America.
Critics of the IDC like to point out that any progressive bills introduced by the rogue senators will just be killed by the GOP. This is to miss the point of the group. Their goal isn’t to influence Republicans; it’s to change Democrats.
Whatever the IDC’s motivations or justifications, the fact is they now hold a tremendous amount of leverage over New York state politics. They hold the keys to the castle. All state Democrats have to do to get their hands on them is support the IDC’s progressive agenda – a policy platform that is needed more than ever in light of the Trump administration’s repeated assaults on liberal America.
But for now, state Democrats are refusing to budge.