Oliver Koppell’s comeback has not been an easy one. Longtime Riverdale allies—as well as the governor, mayor, several important unions and even the political club that Koppell once ran—have backed his opponent, incumbent State Sen. Jeff Klein. Koppell won the backing of the Working Families Party in June, but once Klein agreed to bring his wayward group of “independent Democrats” back to the Democratic caucus, the WFP’s retreated from the race. Koppell’s campaign manager had to depart last month over posts on his personal Facebook page that were critical of Israel. Campaign finance disclosures made last week revealed that Klein has a 20-to-1 financial edge.
Before Koppell even entered the race, some thought his presence would be temporary. “I don’t think Oliver will be there at the end,” said one person familiar with the WFP’s deliberations in April. The expectation was that Klein would cut a deal to relieve the pressure he was getting from the left, support for Koppell would ebb, and the challenger would withdraw.
But Koppell says he ‘s staying in until the votes are counted. “I’m committed to making this race. We have $100,000 in the bank which will allow us to communicate with the voters. It’s not that large a district. We hope to raise another $100,000 before the primary,” he told CityLimits.org in an interview last week. “I believe I have a good chance to win.”
“Am I the underdog?” he continued. “Yes.”
Koppell represented Riverdale in the state Assembly for more than 20 years before being elected in 1993 to serve as state attorney general after Robert Abrams resigned. He lost the 1994 primary for attorney general and failed again in 1998 before winning the first of three terms in the City Council in 2001, and was barred by term limits from seeking re-election last year. As his forced retirement loomed last summer, Koppell says, the WFP began talking with him about challenging Klein.
The challenge to Klein was part of a broader effort to pull state government to the left after three years in which a carefully centrist Gov. Cuomo and the Republican-controlled state Senate derailed much of progressives’ agenda. In late May, the WFP came shockingly close to rebuffing Cuomo and giving its ballot line to Zephyr Teachout, but the party and the governor reached an 11th-hour agreement in which Cuomo vowed to adopt the party’s legislative wish list—and to work for a Democratic Senate to enact it. Klein’s agreement to move the Independent Democratic Caucus from the Republican side of the Senate to the Democratic camp soon followed. The WFP’s announcement of neutrality in the Klein-Koppell race came next.
Koppell says he is not surprised by the WFP puling back from the race. “I foresaw it. Yes. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it,” he says. He recently has been approached, he says, by people who “suggest that perhaps I should declare victory and leave the field of battle.” But he insists: “I’m not going to do that.”
The 34th Senate district is a gerrymandered mess that absorbs all of Riverdale, runs across Bedford Park and Fordham before flowing down through Morris Park to Hunts Point, across Soundview and Throgs Neck and up to Pelham Bay, then north into Westchester County, where it passes through Pelham and hooks into Mount Vernon.
Koppell is an unknown quantity across most of that far-flung district. But the parts of the 34th that overlap with Koppell’s former Council district are vote rich. More than half the votes Klein won in the 2012 general election—when he was endorsed on four ballot lines—came from the four Assembly districts that Koppell’s Council district also crossed. And in Koppell’s Council victories in 2005 and 2009 he won by the same very strong margin across those different parts of that district. Koppell’s chance at victory hinges on those areas—and especially Riverdale, his longtime base—coming out strongly for him on a day when turnout is supposed to be light.
Klein, however, has a lot of institutional support from clubs, unions and pols that will help him get people to the polls elsewhere in the sprawling district, and is not a stranger to Riverdale either: He took 93 percent of the vote there in the 2012 general election.
The issues at play, Koppell says, are the DREAM act, the women’s equality agenda, campaign finance reform and the minimum wage—all of which, Koppell says, Klein abandoned as part of the IDC marriage with Senate Republicans. Klein was criticized for rushing a vote on the DREAM Act and could not get the Senate behind the abortion plank in the women’s equality agenda. He proposed a campaign finance reform plan but no comprehensive reform was approved this year. Klein did facilitate the passage of an increase in the minimum wage last year, though the scale of the increase fell short of advocates’ hopes.
Koppell has also criticized Klein’s fundraising, which includes large amounts from real-estate interests—though Koppell came in for criticism himself for delaying his campaign finance disclosure.
But most of all, Koppell’s run is about Klein’s decision in 2012 to form the Independent Democratic Caucus and side with Republicans so the GOP could maintain its control of the Senate. Koppell believes Klein’s conditional return to the Democratic fold—Klein gets to remain a co-leader of the state Senate and the IDC remains a separate entity from mainline Democrats—is not genuine.
“I’m running against Senator Klein because he has betrayed the Democratic party,” says Koppell, delivering his stump speech. “He has betrayed us.”
Asked if he feels betrayed himself by one-time allies who’ve backed Klein, Koppell says merely that he is “disappointed” in his fellow Democrats and one-time allies. After more than 30 years of public service, Koppell says he’s not afraid to end his career with a loss.
“Whether I win of lose we’ve already won. If I lose, and I don’t expect to, I’m hopeful Senator Klein will keep his promises. I don’t believe he will, but I am hopeful,” he says. “If he keeps his promise and we win the majority and we get the DREAM Act and we get campaign finance reform and we get a higher minimum wage, you know who gets credit? Oliver Koppell. And should I win, I assure you we’ll get those things.”