Koppell, left, and Klein on BronxTalk (photo by Osjua Newton)
The contest between state Sen. Jeff Klein and former New York City Council Member Oliver Koppell could determine the future of the State Senate and both men are campaigning as though everything is at stake.
"If I win the IDC is dead," Koppell told Gotham Gazette of the Klein-led Independent Democratic Conference, "I will tell them they can come back as full-fledged Democrats and if not, I will tell them: 'as far as I am concerned, you will have a primary opponent and I will finance it.'"
Koppell told Gotham Gazette that should he win and join the Senate he expects to be made a part of Senate Democratic leadership, despite the fact that he would only be a freshman Senator, and from that position he said he will invite other members of Klein's IDC back to the fold or personally ensure funding for primaries against them.
Many Senate Democrats hope to see Koppell pull off a victory and believe with Klein gone the rest of the IDC members would simply return to the mainline Democrats. But many of those Democrats won't express that notion publically because their leadership cut a deal with Klein that would see the two conferences share power after the November elections - if both sides together have enough members to take control of the body, that is.
Vehement promises aside, Koppel's frustration with his position in the race against Klein is palpable - he was supposed to have massive support from Senate Democrats, the Working Families Party, and the unions that back them. He was recruited to challenge Klein because of Klein's maneuvering the IDC into an alliance with Senate Republicans that led to a bottleneck of progressive legislation.
Shortly after being persuaded to join the race by Senate Democrats and members of the Working Families Party, Koppell saw Klein cut a deal by which he pledged to a power-sharing agreement for control of the Senate and to pass the legislation he had helped bottle up.
All the promises made to Koppell to entice him to run in what he knew would be a brutal contest disappeared, but Koppell did not. Now with limited resources, and without the backing of most mainstream Democrats, Koppell has tried to make a race out of it with the energy of the progressive movement that is angry Klein has been able to escape retribution from abandoning Senate Democrats.
Back in 2004, things were a bit different: both men were on the same side of a Senate contest between then-Assembly Members Klein and Steve Kauffman, who said he would caucus with Senate Republicans if elected.
''In terms of the Republicans, this is backroom sleazy politics, and it goes completely against the party system,'' Klein told The New York Times in 2004, referring to Kauffman's discussions with then Republican Senate Leader Joe Bruno. ''I think it's important for this district to tell Joe Bruno that the Republicans can't get involved in a Democratic primary.''
"Well, the fact is I supported Jeff Klein in that race for the very reason that I'm challenging him now - Kauffman going to caucus with the Republicans and Klein who was outspoken at the time said he would work for Democrats. I went door to door with [Klein] in Riverdale," recalls Koppell. "It never works well when people switch."
Klein's spokesperson declined to make the senator available for an interview claiming that he was "out of the district." Over several days, Gotham Gazette asked to speak with the senator, to no avail.
Bronx insiders say that the district is so varied and that turnout is expected to be so limited that either man could win the race - despite the fact that Klein is a long-term incumbent who has earned his power in the Legislature through being a prodigious fundraiser and deft dealmaker. Koppell expects to see 15 to 20 percent turnout.
Gary Axelbank, host of BronxTalk, saw both men for a debate last month and says Koppell is in a tough spot because "Klein is a very good public servant and every community in his district can point to something he did. Jeff works very hard." But at the same time he notes Koppell "has really made this a race."
The Riverdale Press reported last week that Klein allocated $14 million in funding to his district this year through the state budget. Funding for things like park improvements, playgrounds, senior and mental health services, school programming, and even public concerts where Klein has taken to campaigning on stage. The Riverdale Press notes that while community groups are thrilled, some of the funding sources for the projects Klein is taking credit for funding are not clear. Klein's office did not respond to requests from the paper about where the funding for certain projects originated.
During the BronxTalk debate Koppell said he felt he had "already won" because entering the race forced Klein to cut a deal with Democrats. But, at the same time he acknowledges no one is sure what that deal really looks like.
"I still don't know what that deal is. I don't know what that means, we don't know who is going to be a senator yet," said Koppell. I don't know what kind of deal they made. If the deal gives Klein veto power thats a terrible deal - look at who Klein's supporters are - real estate, liquor, big healthcare and pharmaceutical companies. If he wins he is going to be king more than he is now."
Koppell has the support of Tenants' PAC, a group that is vehemently opposed to Klein because of his deep ties to the real estate industry and landlord lobby. They are afraid that he will gut the city's rent laws that are up for renewal in the Legislature next year.
Klein was greeted harshly during his visit to the Stonewall Democrats' endorsement meeting in July. The crowd demanded to know why Klein "abandoned" Democrats and helped bottle up gender equality legislation. Klein responded that night that the mainstream Democrats didn't have enough supportive members to pass the bills in question. He has repeated that mantra about campaign finance reform, the DREAM Act, and a larger increase to the minimum wage. Koppel says Klein's argument ignores the fact that he chose to empower a group of Republicans who all stand against those issues, but also leaves out the fact that Klein is an ally of Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., the Democrats' most outspoken critic of gay rights, women's rights, and public campaign financing. In fact, Klein has been campaigning with Diaz Sr. all summer long.
Multiple sources have confirmed that Klein was also instrumental in convincing Council Member Fernando Cabrera to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Gustavo Rivera. Rivera has been an outspoken critic of Klein's and is known to be one of the most progressive members of the Senate. Meanwhile, Cabrera has been linked to a hate group, opposes expansions of gay rights and women's rights, and took money from a controversial donor who supports Uganda's anti-gay laws.
Klein countered Koppell on BronxTalk by insisting that the IDC was responsible for legislative achievements such as Cuomo's gun control package (the SAFE Act), passing Mayor Bill de Blasio's universal pre-k initiative, and rent freezes for senior citizens. "These are core Democratic accomplishments and I'm proud of them," Klein said.
Further, Klein questioned Koppell's commitment to the Democratic Party, calling him "Bloomberg's puppet" for sponsoring and supporting legislation that extended term limits in the city. Koppell countered that Klein received a $10,000 donation from Bloomberg and has served in the Legislature for 20 years without term limits.
The progressive tide that forced Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the IDC to realign themselves appears to have been sparked by the 2013 New York City mayoral race and progressive ideas pushed by Mayor de Blasio and then-Comptroller John Liu (who is also challenging an IDC senator, Tony Avella). It was that wave that pulled Koppell into the race, but now it appears the tides have turned thanks to deals cut between de Blasio, Cuomo, the WFP, and the IDC.
Klein enjoys the bulk of endorsements from labor and political clubs in his district as well as the backing of Cuomo, de Blasio and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. In fact, Cuomo, Diaz Jr., and others led a get-out-the-vote rally for Klein in the Bronx on Sunday, just two days before the primary.
At the end of the BronxTalk debate Klein declined to take questions from a room full of reporters. His spokesperson insisted he had to leave quickly to be to another appointment. Klein, however, was later seen strolling leisurely through the campus.
Koppell stayed to continue throwing mud at Klein's record. Primary day is Tuesday.
[Read our Guide to the Last-Minute Primary Voter to prepare for Tuesday's elections]
[Use the Gotham Gazette-WNYC Election Guide to see which races will be on your ballot and much more]
by David King, Albany Editor, Gotham Gazette