Giving new life to the famous Will Rogers dictum about the lack of discipline among Democrats, that party, which had a surprisingly good day in State Senate contests on November 6, may be on the verge of throwing away a 33-30 majority they never expected to win. As Andy Humm reports on page 12, dissension in Democratic ranks — which in 2009 temporarily blew up the party’s Senate majority during the only two-year term in more than 40 years in which it held control — has already led one newly elected senator, Simcha Felder, an Orthodox Jewish social conservative from Brooklyn, to announce he will caucus with the Republicans.
It’s distressing, no doubt, to Democratic loyalists that someone can get their party’s nomination in an inaugural run for the Senate and announce days after winning election that he would withhold his vote from a fellow Democrat in the contest for majority leader. Still, Felder’s defection is hardly surprising given how out of step with the party his views are on questions like LGBT equality. In 2006, faced with the need to rally ‘round the consensus candidate for City Council speaker, Felder absented himself in the men’s room rather than cast a public vote for out lesbian Christine Quinn.
The game of footsies that four other Democrats — the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) of Diane Savino, Jeff Klein, David Carlucci, and David Valesky, all progressives — are playing with the GOP is harder to fathom. They may be not like the Democratic conference’s unending power struggles or they may simply be hedging their bets since two tight races in which Democrats hold slim leads have not been definitively decided. It’s hard to see, though, how their views on bread and butter issues for their constituents — in the case of New York City Senators Savino and Klein, rent regulation prime among them — square with the policy prescriptions current Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos represents.
Some will question what stake the LGBT community has in this scramble. After all, three of the most significant LGBT victories in New York State — marriage equality, the gay rights law, and hate crimes legislation that includes protections based on sexual orientation — were all passed by the Senate under Republican leadership.
Our success in making the best of challenging terrain, however, should not be confused with embracing such an adverse environment from the get-go. The GOP did in fact show leadership in allowing a vote on gay marriage — which it had the power to block. It’s important to remember, however, that 29 of the 33 aye votes came from Democrats. More importantly, when a crucial Judiciary Committee vote on the community’s current top priority — the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) — was held in June 2010, every Republican joined the anti-LGBT Bronx Democrat Ruben Diaz, Sr., in scuttling hopes for sending that measure to the Senate floor for a straight up or down tally.
The GOP acquiesced to a vote on marriage equality last year in the face of a concerted push by Governor Andrew Cuomo on an issue whose political currency now captivates the public imagination. What guarantees can Savino, Klein, and the others offer that GENDA will get the same basic fair-play treatment? Especially when Cuomo himself is clearly showing no interest in the Democrats claiming the Senate majority they seem to have won.
To be fair, the governor honored the good faith born out of his marriage equality negotiations with Republicans by offering his support to two GOP senators — Roy McDonald and Stephen Saland — who voted yes only to find themselves in political trouble this year. Many LGBT advocates, including leading political funders, also stood with the four Republicans who stood with us last year. But, Cuomo and our community discharged our indebtedness — and even with significant help, McDonald and, it appears, Saland did not survive.
As Cuomo trots out rhetoric about “coalition” leadership of the Senate — inviting additional defections from Democrats, perhaps including Diaz and Queens’ Malcolm Smith — he and the IDC members need to explain how that will advance progressive goals their supporters are eager to see achieved, now among them the enactment of GENDA.
The governor sees a bright future for himself in the Democratic Party. He might find his interests are best served, however, by identifying himself with the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.