Jeff Klein: The Bronx Democrat Keeping the GOP in Power

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State Senator Jeff Klein used to be a party loyalist.  He became a State Senator by arguing his opponent was too cozy with Republicans. But now, Klein's the one who's teaming up with the GOP.

In November’s elections, at least 32 Democrats won state senate seats, enough for a majority in Albany. But they won’t be in control of the body.  Instead, a group of breakaway Democrats says it will share power with Republicans.

It was just three and a half years ago that he stood on the chambers floor, yelling.

“Mr. President, I move to adjourn!” Klein shouted while Republicans came to their feet to drown him out.

He was trying to adjourn the floor session before four defecting Democrats could join with Republicans, and with it, give control to the Republicans.

When he first rate for state Senate in 2004, Klein ran on his party bonafides.  "Really what it's about is who the real Democrat is,” he told WNYC in 2004, taking a dig at his Democratic primary challenger, who he charged would sell out his party to the GOP. 

Now, Jeff Klein is the one keeping Democrats from the majority.

“This new coalition is not an exclusive club. It’s open to anyone, Democrat or Republican, who’s serious about governing,” Klein said at a press conference last week. He stood alongside Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos.

Klein and Skelos will be co-leaders of the Senate, thanks to a power-sharing deal the two struck.

This means that in a session expected to cover a minimum wage hike, campaign finance laws, and marijuana legalization, there will be more Democrats in the Senate, but they won’t control the Senate’s agenda.

Those decisions will be left to the Republican leader and the so-called independent Democratic leader Jeff Klein, whose district spans Westchester and the northern Bronx. And it brings a new level of power for a neighborhood guy from the Bronx.

“I haven’t lived a very worldly life,” Klein said while sitting at a table at Sorrento’s, a pizza place in Morris Park, the Bronx neighborhood of wide avenues and single family homes where Klein grew up.“I’ve never left a 5-block radius from where we’re sitting here today.”  

A trained lawyer, Klein’s served in Albany almost all of his adult life, first in the Assembly, then in the Senate. When he’s not in session, he teaches New York political history at a local college. He even dates a fellow state senator, Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island.

“It’s sometimes hard to date somebody who just doesn’t understand why you feel the need to go to three dinners on a Saturday night, instead of a movie and a nice restaurant,” he said. “She gets it, because she’s doing the same thing.”

Klein's district was historically Republican, but the Senate seat opened up after long-time Republican, Guy Velella, was caught taking bribes.  Klein saw his chance, and he campaigned as a partisan Democrat.

He said he risked his Assembly seat to try and get the Democratic majority.  And he gathered prominent Democrats to make the point, like the former Public Advocate, Mark Green. “Democrats should support Democrats – not play footsie with Republicans!” Green declared during his 2004 endorsement.

Klein won, and rose through the party ranks in the Senate. When Democrats won the majority after the 2008 election, he became a Deputy Majority leader, and that’s why it fell to him to try to block those defecting Senators, in that nosy showdown.

“The coup, of course. I had a ring-side seat to that disaster,” Klein remembered this week. But he says the Democrats’ defection back then was different.

“It was merely a power grab. They weren’t trying to influence policy, they weren’t trying to govern. They were making a deal at the time with the Republicans to gain some type of power.”

It led to a month-long deadlock. Steve Pigeon, a Buffalo political consultant helped orchestrate the 2009 maneuver, says he watched Klein lay the groundwork for his ascension then – working the various Democratic factions and meeting with Republicans himself.

“He was trying to cut a separate deal, and what ended up happening is it blew up,” Pigeon said.

Klein admits he was talking about power-sharing with Republicans back then. He even sent out a press release outlining how it could work. But it didn’t take.  

The coup ordeal left Democrats bruised, mistrustful and publicly maligned as ineffective. In the 2010 election, Democrats lost seats and control of the Senate. Klein had been in charge of the Democrats Senate reelection campaign.

After that, Klein officially broke from the party leadership and led a group of Democrats who broke from their leadership.

They adopted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s talking points on Albany dysfunction, though both Klein and Gov. Cuomo insist the governor’s office has stayed out of the leadership battles in the senate.

But when it comes to policy, Klein said his agenda is in “lockstep” with the governor’s.

“It is an agenda that is right for New Yorkers. We can’t spend money we don’t have. I think we’ve realized that,” he said.

But for Democrats looking ahead to the session next month, when they will not be outnumbered but will be out of power, it’s personal.

“Frankly, I’m not sure why he’s struck this relationship with the Republicans,” said Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the new leader of the Senate Democrats. She campaigned with Klein, her Yonkers district borders his, and she says they were usually aligned on bills.

Sen. Stewart-Cousins became the first woman to lead a legislative caucus in Albany when she was elected her Senate colleagues this week. She’s also African American, and race matters in this leadership fight, because Senate Democrats are much more racially diverse than Republicans – and some have charged that Klein’s deal has effectively shut minority senators out of power.

For Sen. Stewart-Cousins, the bottom line is Democrats won more seats than Republicans.

“When people go the polls and they vote for someone of a certain party and that person goes and does something different, that’s a level of disenfranchisement frankly.”

The math is still in motion in the Senate. The last Senate races are still being decided, and a newly-elected Democrat has already said he'll caucus with Republicans. In the end, Republicans might be able to count 32 members in their caucus — a majority — without Klein and his backers. A spokesman for Republican leader Dean Skelos said the co-leading deal would still stand even if the GOP cobbles together the majority without him.

As Sen. Klein looks ahead to January's session, he describes the arrangement as a model for bipartisan cooperation and stable government. That assumes, of course, that rank-and-file Republicans will buy into Klein’s vision – or that his former Democratic colleagues will be there to back him up.