Senator Jeff Klein Under Pressure to Act on Reform

Democrat Jeff Klein Under Microscope in Albany: State Sen. Jeff Klein, Co-Leader of the Power-Sharing Conference, Has a Big Say on Cuomo’s Agenda

The Wall Street Journal

Erica Orden

June 17, 2013

ALBANY—As the legislative session winds down, all eyes in the Capitol are on Jeff Klein, a state senator from the Bronx who is seen as wielding tremendous power over Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s agenda.

Mr. Klein leads the Independent Democratic Conference, which broke away from the Democrats—who hold a majority of seats in the Senate—to share power with Republicans. In the final few weeks of the session, his first as a legislative leader, Mr. Klein has found himself in the cross hairs of Mr. Cuomo, advocacy groups and lobbyists, who have targeted him as the key to whether legislation such as Mr. Cuomo’s drive to amend abortion rights in New York or introduce a system of public financing for elections can find a way to a vote.

In recent days, a coalition of women’s groups pushing Mr. Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act, which includes provisions concerning abortion, began airing a commercial in Mr. Klein’s district. “Sen. Jeff Klein made a promise to New York women,” the ad says. “Klein promised to support our right to choose. Now Klein is blocking a vote on the Women’s Equality Act.”

On Monday, Mr. Cuomo, who has called for Mr. Klein to force votes on the issues even if they are bound to fail, went a step further, warning in a radio interview that “campaign finance—public finance—and the choice issue are going to be significant election-day issues next year.”

Of the abortion issue, Mr. Cuomo said, “The big question is going to be for the IDC,” describing the conference members in an aggressive dig as “theoretically” Democrats. “How do you let them not take a vote?”

In an interview, Mr. Klein defended his decision, saying, “I don’t bring bills to the floor that fail. That’s not what leaders do.”

Mr. Klein recalled his experience as deputy majority leader, when a vote concerning marriage equality failed in the Senate. “While I gave an impassioned speech and so did many of my colleagues, it didn’t change one vote,” he said. “We never had the votes. And leaving that chamber that evening, people weren’t happy. There wasn’t any celebration that we brought that bill the floor to fail, and I swore I wouldn’t do that again.”

Mr. Klein, who on Sunday night released a women’s equality bill that includes planks addressing matters such as pay equity but wouldn’t amend abortion rights, also described Mr. Cuomo’s push to amend abortion rights in the state as unnecessary at the moment.

“If there really was a threat nationally to Roe v. Wade, if the Supreme Court overturned it tomorrow, then yeah, then I would say we have a problem with this coalition, because if I was not able to bring a bill to the floor to make sure that New York still is protected under the decision of Roe v. Wade, that’s a problem. But that doesn’t exist.”

Mr. Klein added that he was perplexed by the decision by women’s advocacy groups to pressure him and the members of his conference, emphasizing that they are pro-choice. “It’s very strange to target people who support your issue,” he said.

Mr. Klein oversees the Senate with Sen. Dean Skelos, a Republican with whom he formed a power-sharing coalition late last year. Just before the coalition was formed, Mr. Klein published an op-ed in which he vowed to advance a “progressive Democratic agenda,” including raising the minimum wage, defending women’s reproductive health and instituting campaign-finance reform.

The agreement governing the coalition states that both leaders must agree to bring bills to the floor for votes, and in the first half of the session Mr. Klein proved successful in helping advance notable pieces of the agenda pushed by Democrats including the governor, such as gun-control legislation and an increase in the state’s minimum wage rate, which was included in the budget agreement signed in April.

But Mr. Skelos and Senate Republicans have long been opposed to the abortion provisions of the women’s rights legislation advanced by Mr. Cuomo, as well as to the concept of a system of public financing for statewide elections and other campaign-finance reform suggestions. And in recent weeks, even as Mr. Klein has professed ideological support for both issues and introduced his own bills on similar topics, he has come under fire for failing to take a more aggressive stance on fighting to bring them to votes.

Even the veto power arrangement that allows Mr. Skelos to block votes has not deterred people such as Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, from pinning the blame on Mr. Klein. Ms. Krueger argued that Mr. Klein should block Republican-backed bills from coming to the floor until Mr. Skelos allows a vote on the women’s rights bill, calling Mr. Klein a “Republican enabler.”

“Has Jeff delivered a Democratic agenda? Absolutely not,” she said. “Jeff could have delivered a Democratic agenda by choosing to remain a Democrat, but he didn’t. And so, by definition, he flunked that test.” (In forming his conference, Mr. Klein said he didn’t want to caucus with Senate Democrats because of the dysfunction that occurred under their reign.)

Others, however, defended the power-sharing arrangement as a productive partnership. “At this time, there are just some things that we feel strongly about, so I don’t see it as anything more than actually the coalition functioning effectively,” said Sen. Tom Libous, a Binghamton Republican who serves as deputy majority coalition leader.

Said Mr. Skelos: “Sen. Klein understands that New Yorkers want bipartisan solutions, and there isn’t a day that goes by that he’s not working to make this state a better place to live and work.”

For his part, Mr. Klein said his decisions have been based exclusively on what is ideologically appealing and realistically achievable. “It’s about getting the votes. It’s about coming together, Democrats and Republicans, and getting enough votes,” he said.

“Remember, if all of these issues that we’re talking about had enough Democratic votes to pass, then yeah, they can point all the fingers that they want that the coalition has failed,” Mr. Klein said. “But I’m very satisfied with the means of government that we’ve adopted over the past year.”

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