State Senator Jeff Klein: Hero or Goat?
The weather forecast was for a very hot day — ninety degrees. Regardless, I wanted to witness an on the ground action by Rise and Resist, a group active in response to the election of Donald Trump. (Full disclosure: I am a member of a New York Indivisible group.)
While the rest of the country is dealing with the daily breaking news of “Trumpland,” New York State has its own political drama which is picking up steam.
It’s all about Albany politics, specifically the State Senate. Eight elected Democrats have joined a group called the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). Under the tutelage of State Senator Jeffrey Klein, they have formed a coalition with Republicans.
With the arrival of Trump’s agenda, voters are getting more tuned in to government at every level. The IDC, previously under the radar, now finds itself scrutinized, both by a newly energized electorate and New York newspapers.
The location of the protest was listed as being at Klein’s Bronx office, 1250 Waters Place, located in the Hutchinson Metro Center. Rather, it was on a two-way street at the foot of the entrance to the large, gated complex.
I didn’t see demonstrators when I arrived, and wondered if I were in the right place. The first thing I saw suggesting I was in the correct vicinity was a large truck. It sported the message, “Laborers Support New York State Senator JEFFREY KLEIN.” In small print was the acknowledgement, “Paid for by New York State Laborers PAC.”
I finally spotted a gaggle of people. They were behind a barricade that had a blue banner with a photograph of Klein. Many of the men had signs or shirts identifying them as belonging to the Transport Workers Union Local 100.
I engaged in conversation with a woman giving directives. She was from Klein’s office, but declined to give me her name. She informed me the people in attendance were part of a community rally, because Klein supports efforts to fix the Tier 6 Bill. “John Samuelson [TWU Local 100 President] supports the IDC,” she said. “Labor issues, working people, retirement — are all one and the same.” When I pressed her on whether the IDC had been preventing legislation that would help most average New Yorkers she replied, “It’s news to me.”
Bronx Community Board 11 member, Marcy Gross, was anxious to share her enthusiasm for Klein. “He supports progressive issues as well as old-school issues,” Gross told me emphatically. “He supports unions.” Without missing a beat, she suggested, “He should run for President!”
I was given a flyer, a list of suggested chants. “Jeff Klein is on our side,” and “The IDC fights for me,” seemed to be favorites. A man yelled out, “There’s nobody more honest than Jeff Klein.”
Further down the sidewalk, a lone anti-Klein activist holding a sign debated with two Klein supporters. The conversation was getting heated. Eventually, the anti-Klein advocate walked away, realizing she wasn’t getting any traction.
I took the opportunity to jump in and ask about their support of Klein. The man, still agitated from the encounter, said, “Klein has given every school in the district $16,500. Nobody cares about the people! They care more about party than people. Klein has found a way to get things done.” He identified himself as a resident of Morris Park before stating, “I think the IDC is great.” I inquired, “May I ask who you voted for in the Presidential election?” His answer was succinct. “No comment.”
At this point, the Rise and Resist contingent had assembled on the opposite side of the street. At the crosswalk, I met a man with a New York State Police Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association shirt. I asked him about his views.
“Klein has supported us on our issues,” he said. “The IDC did an independent review on assaults on our staff. They gave the proper information.” He then referenced media distortions circulated based on “lower numbers reported by the agency.” He paused and underscored, “The IDC brings stability to the State Senate. I can only go with what Klein has done for our profession.”
I crossed the street and waded into the anti-Klein demonstrators. Their signs also encapsulated a clear point of view: IDC=GOP, Fake Dems, and Indecent/Deceitful/Collaborators. They served to nail down objections to the eight “rogue” Democrats in the IDC conference.
An article had already appeared in the New York Times, outlining questions swirling around IDC members who had received monies in the form of stipends. (Days later, a piece in the New York Post dug further in the matter of leadership “lulus.”)
I spoke first to Eve Proper of Rise and Resist, who explained the group was doing a series of protests against the IDC. “These are Democrats who do not caucus with Democrats. They give Republicans a Senate majority, so that Republicans can stop bills in committee.” Jamie Bauer, standing nearby, was quick to mention the “lulus” situation.
Most of the people I interviewed had specific concerns. One woman gave me a primer on the 1971 Urstadt Law, which allows the state to have the last word on New York City rent-regulated housing. She pointed out that Klein had major donors in the real estate industry, and hasn’t been anxious to see the legislation overturned.
Aggie Mullaney, who called herself a “community activist and a mother” said, “Single payer is a perfect example. It gets through the Assembly but doesn’t pass the Senate. The IDC is enabling a Trump agenda.” Mullaney was concerned with expanding voting rights and the DREAM Act. “We explain to voters that members of the IDC, who they voted for as Democrats, are working with Republicans. Most of them have no idea what the IDC is. It’s a subterfuge!”
My conversations were interrupted by car horns honking in support of the Klein advocates. The Klein truck made several passes down the street during the time I was there.
I heard rumblings that the “counter-demonstration” was peopled by folks brought on-site. I contacted Rise and Resist point person, Paul Rabin, on Monday to check on that story. Rabin confirmed, “There were two or three school buses that people were getting on to. I spoke to several women there. They didn’t seem to know what the IDC was.”
Educational consultant Toby Marxuach-Gusciora related, “I think Klein does what’s good for Republicans, and they believe in charter schools. These schools pick the top kids, and then the public schools don’t have diverse populations. It’s killing education for minorities, and in the long run — public education.”
Maria Bautista, NYC Campaigns Director of the Alliance for Quality Education, was also concerned about the IDC role in the public education space. “As part of their coalition with the Republicans in the Senate, Klein and the IDC voted to underfund public schools, and to fund privately run charter schools instead. Our public schools in New York City are owed $1.9 billion as a result of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. The Senate Republicans are fighting tooth and nail against this money for our children. Yet, Jeff Klein and his IDC colleagues are empowering the Senate Republicans instead of fighting for our schools.” I asked Bautista about the pro-Klein people stating that Klein was bringing funds into the schools. She told me she had spoken to some Klein supporters about the work the Alliance was doing. “Jeff Klein apparently secures additional funding for the schools in his district. Community members were very aware of this. However, the reality is that this money is a fraction of what is owed. His district alone was owed $102 million this past year and he’s blocked his community and the state from benefiting from the full funding for public schools.” Reflecting on how Klein was massaging his district she suggested, “It seems he takes care of local schools and awards grants to curry favor.”
I got quite similar feedback on the “follow the money” component from Darius Longarino. A young lawyer, Longarino called Klein’s offices in Albany and the Bronx to express the need for early voting and automatic registration. “The GOP provides Senator Klein with several tens of million dollars for projects in his district,” he said.
“This is far more than any other senator — Republican or Democrat — many of them representing districts more in need of financial support. Why does this happen? The GOP is buying Klein’s loyalty, and Klein, in turn, buys loyalty in the district. Klein is often pictured in the paper giving out big checks to parks and local groups, but the cost of his backroom bargain with the GOP is invisible. For example, our district’s public schools are owed $80 million in Foundation Aid, the distribution of which the IDC and GOP have endeavored to slow and diminish. Meanwhile, they have passed legislation to prop up the charter school industry.”
Longarino pointed me to a 2015 PoliticoNewYork drill-down on Klein and his $11 million plus in earmarks. “It’s about money in return for support,” Longarino concluded. “He buys the peace while preventing progressive action.”
Photos: Bob Volin