As Alessandra Biaggi, a first-time candidate for office, attempts to unseat Democratic state Senator Jeff Klein, once the powerful leader of a rogue faction of Democratic senators, a prominent labor union is pulling no punches to ensure that her insurgent campaign prevails in the September 13 primary.
The property services workers union, 32BJ SEIU, which boasts more than 160,000 members and is a regular political heavyweight, has been aggressively courting voters and spending money to help Biaggi defeat Klein, a Democrat the union once backed. A force in state politics with allies at the highest reaches of government, 32BJ could put Biaggi over the top in what is increasingly being viewed, despite Klein’s significant advantages, as an unpredictable race given broader trends and recent upsets, Biaggi’s strengths as a campaigner, and the activism behind her bid.
Klein represents Senate District 34, which covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester, and has been in office since 2005. Along the way, he acquired power and prestige, forming the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), an alliance that grew to eight senators who broke from the chamber’s mainline Democratic conference and formed a coalition majority with Senate Republicans, at times ensuring GOP leadership of the only Republican stronghold in state government. In turn, IDC members received leadership positions, additional stipends, more discretionary funding for their districts, and other benefits. The infamous “three men in a room” of state government decision-making -- the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader -- became four, with Klein joining to influence the fate of key legislation and the state budget.
The IDC rejoined the mainline Democrats in April, after another state budget agreement and no shortage of criticism from progressive activists, unions, and elected Democrats who viewed their power-sharing agreement with visceral hatred and outright derision. A slate of challengers, including Biaggi, had already launched their campaigns to unseat the IDC members in the primary, promising “real” as opposed to “Trump Democrats.”
The Democratic unity deal had its beginnings in a letter sent in November 2017 by leaders of the state Democratic Party, Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley and, notably, Hector Figueroa, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, the president of 32BJ, and an active and powerful voice in New York politics. They appealed to Klein and Democratic conference leader Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins to reunite the disparate factions of the same party. In April this year, the two sides finally came together, with Governor Andrew Cuomo literally in the middle at a press conference, expressing a newfound bonhomie that tried to erase years of bad blood. Both sides promised mutual support in the upcoming elections. Klein was appointed deputy conference leader under Stewart-Cousins and pledged that the IDC was dead forever as a conference.
But, damage was already done. Following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, a wave of grassroots activists had vowed to oppose the IDC Senators and, one by one, challengers emerged to take on each senator in the primary. They shared similar policy platforms, pledging to support causes near and dear to progressives -- such as single-payer health care, criminal justice reform, enhanced rent regulations, voting, ethics and campaign finance reform, and increased education funding -- which they blamed IDC members for blocking. Among them was Biaggi, who formerly worked in Cuomo’s counsel’s office and was deputy national operations director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In late June, two months after the unity compact, 32BJ announced its endorsement of Biaggi, which shocked the New York political world and many saw as the crumbling of the facade of a unified effort to keep Democratic incumbents, including Cuomo and Klein, in power. Figueroa, who remains a staunch Cuomo supporter, was accused by some of reneging on a commitment to not oppose the former IDC members, a charge he has repeatedly dismissed.
“I think that Democratic unity was already broken,” Figueroa said in a phone interview on Thursday. “The efforts to fix it were not really sincerely driven, or even embraced when others were driving it, by the IDC.” He emphasized that the IDC had ample opportunity to return to the fold, and should have done so when the need for unity became clear. First was after the 2014 elections, when 32BJ had endorsed Klein after he promised to end the IDC alliance with Republicans. Klein subsequently broke that promise. Then came Trump’s election, after which Democrats saw a dire need to regain complete control of state government. Again, the IDC stuck with Republicans.
“So the effort that we undertook throughout 2017, showing them the reality of where the country was and what it meant to be sharing power with Republicans, finally caught up with them when they were primaried,” Figueroa said, “When they experienced rejection in their own districts, then they decided that it was time to try to figure out how to come back.”
The terms of the deal were also unacceptable, he said, noting that the former IDC members insisted on funding their campaigns with money raised with the Independence Party through the Senate Independence Campaign Committee (SICC), which received contributions from donors more friendly to Republican causes, such as real estate and charter school interests. (The committee was recently ruled by a judge to be illegal and the IDC members were directed by a Board of Elections official to return millions in campaign funds they had received, though they have refused to do so, while they took steps to get the SICC into compliance.)
“Even when they accepted the offer, they kept the [SICC] money and they demanded what cannot be demanded, which is that everybody bow to their leadership and ignore their opponents,” Figueroa said. “So to me, this was already set to fail, unfortunately,...because of the attitude and arrogance of the head of the IDC and his minions in the conference.”
He continued, “The roots of division were very, very deep and had they behaved in a different way, had they refunded the money, had they taken the attitude that they have to talk to voters, they have to talk to people in the district like we asked Klein to do with our members, had they been more humble, maybe they could have avoided the ferocity of the opposition. But they didn’t do that. They felt that institutional politics protects them and now they’re paying the price.”
Endorsing Biaggi was an easy calculation for the union. Klein refused to be interviewed by its screening committee, which then unanimously voted for Biaggi, Figueroa said.
Biaggi said the union’s support was “incredibly massive,” touting shared values and the union’s organizing efforts around progressive legislation in the state. “They were also the first union to come out and support me before any other union, and that’s something that I will absolutely never forget. It is incredibly politically courageous,” she said.
The union had already committed to hitting the ground for Biaggi, traversing the district to knock on doors and canvass for votes. Then, just over a month after their endorsement of Biaggi, Klein pulled a stunt that left Figueroa “perplexed.”
The senator hosted about a dozen rank-and-file members of Figueroa’s union and posted a video to Twitter in which they held up signs for his campaign and chanted, “32BJ!” In a subsequent tweet, Klein wrote, “These are the doormen, the superintendents, maintenance staff and security companies in our building and our public schools, who provide clean and safe environments for our families. This is a testament to loyalty, and I am truly honored by the rank and file support of @32BJSEIU.”
“[It] doesn’t mean anything except that it revealed one of the personality flaws that we find in Klein - the vanity, the arrogance of doing that is really innovative and unique,” Figueroa said, having never experienced a candidate attempting to project support that he does not have from the union’s majority and endorsement vote. “And it’s that style of politics that we have to reject at this time. The politics of confusion and the politics of divisiveness and the politics of deceiving the electorate, which is what has been the trademark of Jeff Klein and the IDC. That only energized us more to support Biaggi.”
The move also annoyed many union members and the next day, Figueroa said, 109 members volunteered to assist the effort behind Biaggi’s candidacy. They went to the Bronx in a show of force.
Biaggi said the move was of a piece with Klein’s career, that he was attempting to fool voters just as he had done for years as part of the IDC, misleading “all of the voters of District 34 into thinking that they were voting for a Democrat when they were really voting for someone who was empowering Republicans. And now he’s trying to pretend that he has a union that did not endorse him...I would never in my wildest dreams do that. It kind of reduces his credibility as a leader.” (City & State reported that, in late August, Klein’s campaign also sent a letter to constituents that made a few misleading claims about his record.)
A spokesperson did not respond to a request for an interview with Klein for this article, and he has declined multiple Gotham Gazette invitations to make radio show appearances, though he has participated in at least two debates with Biaggi and other candidate forums.
In one of the debates, hosted by BronxTalk, Klein downplayed the IDC’s role in empowering Republicans while touting its record passing progressive legislation including raising the age of criminal responsibility and a phased $15 minimum wage program. Klein said his opponent was playing “fast and loose” with the facts and he insisted that the IDC couldn’t have given Democrats a majority since the 32nd vote that gave Republicans control over the 63-member chamber came from Simcha Felder, a conservative Democrat from Brooklyn. That continues to be the case, which is why Democrats are hoping to notch victories in several swing districts outside New York City in November, while some eye unseating Brooklyn Republican Senator Marty Golden and others, including 32BJ, support Blake Morris in his primary challenge to Felder.
Klein insisted the IDC was a creation of necessity, pointing to the last time the Democrats won a majority in 2008. “The minute we won that majority, it was all downhill -- corruption, dysfunction,” he said, pointing to four Democratic state Senators who had attempted their own independent faction that year which plunged the chamber into chaos. “I originally decided to run for the state Senate to make sure we had a Democratic majority. And over the years, even though there wasn’t a Democratic majority, I was able to get a lot of things done,” Klein said in his closing statement.
A Democratic consultant who lives in the district and requested anonymity to speak freely said Klein’s move to court union members made sense. “I can see it as a viable tactic by an elected official like Jeff Klein to have public meetings with union members even if he didn’t get support from their leadership,” the consultant said.
Klein may not have 32BJ’s backing, but he does have a whole host of unions, some very powerful ones, that want to see him reelected including 1199 SEIU, DC37, the Hotel Trades Council, TWU Local 100, RWDSU, and several law enforcement unions. Klein has also raised and spent much more money than his challenger.
“I am still the underdog in this race,” Biaggi acknowledged, “which means that I have double the amount of work that I have to do to make sure that people know who I am, that people understand what this race is about and what's at stake for really everyone in New York and why it’s so important for our community to actually have a real Democrat representing them.”
Besides the hundreds of volunteers that 32BJ has put into the ground game week after week, the union has also put money behind Biaggi. It donated $7,000 to her campaign and its independent expenditure committee, Empire State 32BJ SEIU PAC, had spent $75,938 to support her campaign through mailers and social media through the most recent filing. Figueroa also signalled that more outside spending was on the way, and the PAC’s latest financial disclosure to the Board of Elections shows $43,861 in outstanding liabilities for expenditures both in favor of Biaggi and opposing Klein.
Biaggi herself has raised more than $504,000 over the course of the race, and has, so far, spent $184,000, which pales in comparison to Klein’s campaign finances, but left her a solid chunk, with more surely coming in, to spend in the final 10 days of the race. In just this two-year cycle, however, the incumbent senator has raised $1.66 million and spent almost $2.4 million, dropping $836,000 in just three weeks in August. While Biaggi had about $263,000 in cash on hand, Klein had nearly $960,000 in the bank for the final stretch.
The Democratic consultant said there has been an “insane amount of mail” going out from both campaigns and their surrogates. “At least one piece a week,” the consultant said. On the ground, the campaigns seem to have split the district in their approach, the consultant said. Klein’s campaign seems focused on holding his home turf in the east, in Morris Park and Wakefield, while Biaggi campaign workers have been hitting the ground hard in the west side of the district, in Riverdale, Van Cortlandt and Kingsbridge. “The farther west you go, prime voters are not getting door-knocked at all by Klein’s people,” the consultant said.
Biaggi said Klein’s outsize spending on the race is a clear signal of weakness. “It says that he is not certain that he’s going to win and that sends a signal to everybody who has supported him previously to say, am I on the right side of this?”
Several Democratic elected officials have also declared for Biaggi, including U.S. Senator from New York Kirsten Gillibrand, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer (pictured with Biaggi), Congressional candidate and progressive rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whom 32BJ did not endorse in her primary win), former Mayor David Dinkins, Congressional Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, and City Council Members Brad Lander, Ben Kallos and Carlina Rivera, Mt. Vernon City Council President Lisa Copeland, Catherine Parker, the majority leader of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, among others. The Working Families Party has also endorsed her and is providing similar on-ground support like 32BJ.
Biaggi was also among four Senate candidates to receive the coveted endorsement of the New York Times editorial board, which wrote, “Alessandra Biaggi, who describes herself pointedly as ‘a real Democrat,’ is the kind of smart, dedicated reformer so desperately needed in Albany.” Biaggi was subsequently endorsed by the New York Daily News editorial board.
A side effect of 32BJ’s mobilization in the district, which is home to 6,000 of its members, said Figueroa, is a new awakening about the local issues and community that is unlikely to fade even if Klein retains his seat. “This is a district where we’re gonna be setting roots for years to come,” he said.
“We have seen the process be hijacked year after year to put a break on what could effectively be the most progressive legislature in the country,” he added. “That is really what is behind the dynamics of this race. And that is only growing. If people feel that somehow if Klein wins, the opposition will go away, they are making a big mistake.”
The next challenge is getting people to turn out to vote on a Thursday. “I am feeling great, I am feeling excited, I’m feeling motivated,” Biaggi said exactly one week before the September 13 primary. “I’m feeling that this next week is going to be incredibly critical to making sure that everybody gets out to vote, that is my number one goal for the next seven days.”
Note - This article has been updated to note that Alessandra Biaggi has also been endorsed by the Working Families Party.