A small group of Bronx Democratic primary voters suddenly find themselves holding the keys to the State Senate.
New York State Senate co-leader Jeff Klein, whose group of breakaway Independent Democratic Conference Democrats shares power with Republicans in the Senate, is being challenged by longtime Bronx politician Oliver Koppell, who says he is running to return power to the Democratic caucus.
It promises to be a hearty fight for partisan control of Albany, but this first battle for hearts and minds (there could be a Round 2) will revolve around Democratic primary voters sprinkled throughout Riverdale, Woodlawn, Morris Park, Country Club, Throgs Neck, Soundview and Hunts Point. The district, which was redrawn in 2012 to include much more of the Bronx, still also includes parts of Pelham and Mount Vernon in Westchester.
The candidates will go toe-to-toe for the Northwest Bronx, where Koppell (who was first elected to public office in 1970) has a long history and Klein holds considerable sway.
The last really ferocious State Senate race in the area—between the now-convicted then-Senator Pedro Espada Jr. and challenger Gustavo Rivera—was decided four years ago by just 12,849 voters. Koppell estimates this race will also come down to fewer than 20,000.
Party labels are key
Up to this point, Klein has not expressed interest in returning to the Democratic caucus; Koppell says he would not have run if Klein had agreed to return, and his campaign is rooted in highlighting Klein’s alleged betrayal of the Democratic voters who elected him.
“It’s so duplicitous,” Koppell says of Klein’s maneuver of taking control of the Senate with the IDC and stripping the Democrats of the majority. “It’s completely dishonest. It’s only power—power to Jeffrey Klein. That’s all that this is about. There’s not an ounce of principle.”
Klein’s detractors, including Koppell, have pointed to his role in passing what they see as a “watered down” minimum-wage bill that, while raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour over three years, does so without indexing the wage to inflation. It also does not include tipped workers and offers an incentive to companies that hire young people at minimum wage.
“That’s something that impacts real people’s lives right now,” says Rivera, who, fresh from a midtown rally last week with fast-food workers demanding higher wages, presented the issue as a case in point that, “It matters who is in the majority in the Senate.”
Klein has been rebuked by a number of core Democratic interests for his alleged role in sabotaging and stalling progressive legislation in Albany. The New York League of Conservation Voters gave Klein its Oil Slick award in 2013 and some women’s groups blamed Klein last session for failing to pass to full Women’s Equity Act. Koppell frequently points to the fact that Klein’s power-sharing agreement has prevented a single racial minority from holding a leadership role in the Senate.
Some advocates for the state’s Dream Act, which would give certain undocumented immigrants access to college financial aid, blamed Klein for the bill’s failure in March because he called a last-minute vote the same day as a New York City rally in support of the legislation and without assuring the necessary support.
Klein declined to comment for this story; but plenty of Bronx electeds are speaking on his behalf. In recent weeks, his endorsements have come rolling in. The candidate boasts support from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Bronx Democratic County Committee Chair Assemblyman Carl Heastie, the Teamsters Union and Koppell’s successor in the council—whom Koppell stumped for this summer — Councilman Andrew Cohen.
Last week’s announcement of backing by key Benjamin Franklin Democratic Reform Club leaders made it clear that Koppell cannot depend on help from his strongest political allies in the district, though the Benjamin Franklin Reform Club itself has yet to vote on the endorsing in the race.
“When you have an incumbent run, as opposed to an open seat, you can’t simply say, ‘Well I want this seat,’” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz—a protégé of Koppell’s and an ally of his for decades—at a Klein endorsement press conference on a Friday, noting that incumbents must be judged on their records. The assemblyman claimed Klein had done everything he’d asked of him in the district, and that it would be wrong not to endorse him.
While Klein’s power-broker role in Albany may have earned him some enemies, it has also come with new friends. His district has felt the benefit of having one of the three most powerful men in the senate representing them. For example, May 27 is Klein’s Jewish Film Festival, where flicks will be watched on a big screen purchased through a grant from Klein, according to Kingsbridge Riverdale Van Cortlandt Development Corporation literature.
Klein also has broader legislative victories on his resume. He has prided himself on bringing an end to partisan impasses in Albany, allowing him to push through a tough set of gun laws, get Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K program into the budget and pass the minimum-wage hike.
Koppell is far from a perfect progressive—he’s been criticized by his own Democratic base for supporting the term-limit extension in 2008 and backing Mayor Bloomberg in 2009—but he is trying to draw a clear ideological distinction between him and Klein.
He counts among his victories passage of New York City’s Living Wage bill in the council in 2012, passage of the bottle bill in the Assembly (resulting in 100 billion bottle and cans recycled, and counting) and his critical vote on a bill that gave women in New York state the right to an abortion before Roe v. Wade.
Weighing the odds
As of January, Klein’s re-election committee had more than $1.5 million on hand. With that war chest, incumbency and high-level endorsements on his side, some have dismissed Koppell’s chances to prevail. But the former councilman’s supporters believe there is a path to victory.
When Koppell announced his candidacy just over two weeks ago, he did so after considerable public mulling and a boost from Daily Kos and MoveOn petitions urging the bid — as well as the go-ahead from Senate Democrats. He now claims support from Northwest Bronx for Change, the Tenants’ Pac and the Senate Democrats, but unions including 32BJ and the UFT have yet to weigh-in on the race. Even Koppell’s friends in the State Senate have not yet been very vocal.
Koppell claims to have gathered dozens of volunteers, and Daily Kos contributors numbering 2,350 had collectively raised $42,000 as of Sunday. He says he’s starting to strategize fundraising efforts with the help of well-heeled state Democratic activist Bill Samuels and is preparing for petitioning to get on the ballot, which begins May 29.
Rivera, who beat out Espada in 2010 despite the odds (namely, a pro-incumbent bent so strong that Bronx county Democratic Committee did not endorse Rivera even though he was up against the now-convicted Espada), an outspoken Klein-critic, has all but endorsed Koppell and says he will “weigh-in heavily” after the Benjamin Franklin Club meeting Thursday night.
He’s encouraging the Club to endorse in the race. Rivera could be particularly helpful to Koppell in new heavily Latino neighborhoods drawn out of Rivera’s district and into Klein’s in 2012. (Rivera, however, faces a primary challenge of his own from Councilman Fernando Cabrera.)
With the legislative session still in full swing, anybody who wants Klein’s help advancing their bills might be strategically holding their fire — or even suspending judgment — until all the legislative ink dries.
But Klein is wasting no time wooing the Democratic base, vowing in media reports not to run on both the Democratic and Republican tickets as he did in 2012. He could still run solely on the Republican ticket if the Bronx GOP holds the line for him and Klein loses the primary. Koppell could also end up running on the Working Families line, which hasn’t endorsed in the race yet.
The future of the IDC, which has two members facing primary challenges from more traditional Democrats (including John Liu’s bid to replace Tony Avella), but could gain a new member if Cabrera beats Rivera, also remains unclear.