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The Secret Playbook NY State Senate Democrats Used To 'Wipe The Floor' With Republicans • Gothamist

By FRANK G. RUNYEON, Nov. 28, 2018

Democratic leaders’ scheme to “cut the head off the IDC snake” was not forged in a dark alleyway or an Italian restaurant, but over egg whites.

It was May 2017 when Democratic powerbroker Sen. Michael Gianaris secretly arranged to meet a new recruit, a young lawyer in the governor’s office named Alessandra Biaggi. Outside both their native boroughs, they met early one Friday morning at an Upper West Side cafe. Gianaris was there to see if Biaggi was the one who could depose his rival, fellow Democrat Jeff Klein, who had allied with the Republicans for years. The clandestine breakfast was only one part of an ambitious strategy to oust Republican-aligned Democrats and wipe out GOP incumbents to wrest control of state legislature.

And despite all historical precedent to the contrary, the plan worked.

New York Democrats achieved a remarkable margin of victory in the New York state senate, locking in 39 of 63 seats. That has left them firmly in control of the legislative and executive branches of New York government with the power to pass progressive laws long-stalled by state senate Republicans and their allies.

The results were not simply the result of a “blue wave,” party leaders say. If State Senate Democrats had won by similar margins as Democrats running for statewide or federal offices, one could chalk that up to that a wave election, but that’s not what happened. In several cases, New York voters overwhelmingly chose a Democratic state senate candidate, while rejecting Gov. Andrew Cuomo or a Democratic congressional candidate.

In the Hudson Valley, voters chose a Republican for governor but also Democrats James Skoufis and Jen Metzger, who outperformed Cuomo by six and seven percentage points, respectively. On Long Island, both Monica Martinez and John Brooks outperformed congressional challenger Liuba Grechen Shirley by three points a piece.

Senate Democrats credit their victories to a carefully-crafted playbook, a secret anti-IDC recruitment drive, and alliances with ascendant grassroots groups; all of which boosted their ballot tallies on Election Day.

After decades of near-complete Republican control of the State Senate, Democrats now hold the largest share of seats in the state’s upper house since 1912—a time when a 30-year-oldFranklin Delano Roosevelt sat in the State Senate, the latest tech was Ford’s Model T automobile, the political outrage of the past year was the Triangle Shirtwaist garment factory fire, and women had no right to vote.

The new 39-to-24 majority marks a pivotal political shift. But while voters clearly expressed a broad preference for Democrats, State Senate Democrats ran up the score and outflanked their rivals in surprising ways—plotting to depose fellow Democrats and targeting popular Republicans previously thought safe.

If they were once shy about their methods, that time is over.

“We totally wiped the floor with the Republicans all over the state,” said state Senator Michael Gianaris, chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee who quarterbacked his party’s election strategy.

In a series of interviews, state Senate strategists shared once-secret party research documents with Gothamist, attributing their wins to incisive data analysis and shrewd campaign strategy that was matched with a robust ground game thanks in large part to energetic candidates and thousands of Democratic volunteers who drove voters to the polls.

Still, there’s an uneasy familiarity to this victory—Democrats have bungled a majority before. In 2008, state senate Democrats won a slim 32-30 majority in the state senate that quickly slipped away during an embarrassing leadership crisis, marked by infighting. Forty years earlier, in 1964, another Democratic majority was also quickly undone by factionalism.

This year will be different, Gianaris said. He has played the long game, laying the groundwork since he arrived in the State Senate.

“It’s safe to say, in 2010 things were at a low point,” Gianaris said. Republicans had flipped several seats after the crisis of 2009 and retaken the chamber. On Jeff Klein’s watch, the party had not only lost seats but accumulated $3 million in debt. Klein, an ambitious Democratic senator from the Bronx who had directed party strategy, was stripped of his title and resigned his leadership position, but blamed other party leaders for the election losses. Within months, Klein formed a group of breakaway Democrats, the Independent Democratic Conference, that would ally with the Republican majority for the next seven years.

Gianaris inherited Klein’s post, the party’s debt, and minority party status.

“The Democrats had just lost the majority. The IDC was just established. Things were somewhat of a mess,” Gianaris said. For years, the Republican-IDC coalition, joined by Democratic Party heretic Simcha Felder, locked Democrats out of power, despite a numerical majority of registered Democrats.

But in 2016, Donald Trump’s election shocked the political system, changing the state’s political topography. A grassroots anti-Trump resistance movement injected first-time activists into local politics, and Democratic party leaders began to believe that the 2018 elections could be a good year if they could harness and direct that energy.

But first, Gianaris had to take care of some unfinished business within his own ranks. He began secretly recruiting candidates to knock out the IDC rebels who had deprived the mainline Democrats of power for years.

When Gianaris first recruited Biaggi, she knew that Senate Democrats were fed up with the IDC leader but also that Democrats rarely attacked their own.

“Traditionally, Democrats don’t primary other Democrats. It’s not a thing that happens,” Biaggi said. "There’s this code of silence that they all take with each other that it doesn’t matter if you’re a bad apple, we’re still going to get behind you.”

But Gianaris was throwing that rule book out the window. “We were trying to convince her” to challenge Klein, he said of Biaggi. “She was definitely interested but had not made a final decision.”

To encourage her, Gianaris passed her research and analysis that amounted to a political playbook, as reported last year. That playbook laid out a battle plan showing where and how Klein could be beaten—if she could win big in Riverdale and rally young voters, a female candidate could win. Klein was “formidable, but vulnerable.”

Gianaris said he also recruited others to depose IDC members, including Jessica RamosZellnor MyrieRobert Jackson, and John Liu—all of whom ultimately succeeded in their mission to oust IDC members.

“We were engaged in a very vigorous effort to recruit and help these people along, up until the governor got involved and made the deal that required us all to stand down,” Gianaris said.

Cuomo’s unity deal with the IDC dissolved the GOP-allied faction under the promise that the Democratic Party would not support primary challenges against IDC members. Communication between Albany Democrats and the chosen challengers went dark.

But Gianaris already had his candidates in the field, acting on intelligence he provided. “By that point it was so late in the game that candidates were off on their own,” Gianaris said. “In other words, we got them off the ground and it was too late to stop them!” he said with a laugh. “Not that we tried.”

By all accounts, the candidates did the heavy lifting after that. Working late nights, knocking thousands of doors, and wearing out several pairs of shoes, Biaggi credits that legwork to her victory over Klein. “It’s remarkable that we were able to pull this off considering the incredibly small amount of support that we had from the beginning,” Biaggi said. “I am a hustler and I out-hustled him.”

Funding dollars also started rolling in early, with discussion of a “blue wave” in 2017 after Democrats flipped both the Westchester and Nassau County executive seats and five Republican senators retired. That had a multiplier effect, Gianaris said. “The donor class took a look and realized that this is really happening for us,” Gianaris said. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee alone was able to spend about $5.5 million. “There was a real vigorous and well-funded campaign effort around the state the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

The committee ended up funding nine races around the state, when typically it would only fund three or four. They spread the money out, giving just enough to allow candidates to eke out a win and allowing grassroots enthusiasm to carry other candidates. “We funded what we knew we had to fund,” Gianaris said.

That money was spent particularly well online.

“Digital played a huge role in our campaign,” a Senate Democratic strategist told Gothamist. Online political ads on Facebook and elsewhere were more nimble and targeted, he said. “We spent more on digital that we ever had in the past. It was essential.”

As Democrats geared up for the general election, in addition to money and grassroots allies, they were armed with a set of insights gleaned from their analysts, previously unpublished internal research shows. Senate strategists examining election data spotted three critical trends that would form the backbone of their strategy and show them which battles to fight.

A chart from State Senate Democrats' 
internal research analysis preceding the midterm elections.

“We had noticed in 2016 as Trump was being elected that there had been this realignment,” the strategist explained. “College-educated voters jumping over to Democrats. And voters without college education, even if they were registered Democrats or had voted Democrat in the past, moving over to the Republican side and voting for Trump. So when we were looking at our opportunities in 2018, we were looking at the suburbs and places that had higher levels of education, that were more diverse.”

Senator-elect Anna Kaplan’s newly-won district just east of Queens is a case in point—“where she just beat Elaine Phillips is both super educated and very diverse.”

“So we first looked at districts that seemed to be demographically advantageous to us,” the strategist said. “Then, we also started seeing throughout the last two years a decrease in ticket splitters.” In other words, Democrats and Republicans would more reliably vote for their party.

This put districts where Democrats had a numerical enrollment advantage in the crosshairs, even if Republicans had won Democrats’ votes in the past. State Senator Marty Golden was at the top of that hit list. His district showed a 28 percentage point enrollment advantage for liberals.

“He had gotten Democratic votes for such a long time that people assumed that it was a forgone conclusion,” the strategist said, but Andrew Gounardes's victory would prove otherwise.

The third insight was that so-called “Obama-Trump” districts, where both those presidents prevailed, a superior or unique candidate, like James Skoufis or Jen Metzger, could pull off a win.

In several races, candidates’ focus was often far from national or even statewide politics.

In Long Island, Democrats hammered Republican candidates on corruption in local machine politics. Jim Gaughran, in particular, drilled down on water.

“It’s not a sexy issue, but people there care about their water rates,” the strategist said.

As much as the midterm election has been cast as an anti-Trump uprising, for individual state senate candidates, it was not a central focus. When it was convenient, they might call out the president, but often it was not. For several candidates, they needed Trump loyalists to vote for them.

“I carried some very Republican election districts,” Gaughran said, noting that those were important votes for him to win. “You also had to get people who supported Donald Trump to vote for you. We did.”

Democratic Insurgents Topple 6 New York Senate Incumbents • NY Times

By Vivian Wang, Sept. 13, 2018

Years of anger at a group of Democratic state senators who had collaborated with Republicans boiled over on Thursday, as primary voters ousted nearly all of them in favor of challengers who had called them traitors and sham progressives.

The losses were not only a resounding upset for the members of the Independent Democratic Conference, who outspent their challengers several times over, but also a sign that the progressive fervor sweeping national politics had hobbled New York’s once-mighty Democratic machine, at least on a local level.

The most high-profile casualty was Senator Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, the former head of the I.D.C. In that role, he was for years one of Albany’s most powerful players, sharing leadership of the chamber with his counterparts in the Republican conference and participating in the state’s secretive budget negotiations.

[What exactly was the I.D.C.? Read our explainer here.]

But on Thursday, he was defeated by Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer and former aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, after a campaign in which Ms. Biaggi cornered Mr. Klein into spending more than $2 million, an astonishing sum for a state legislative race. (Cynthia Nixon, in her unsuccessful bid against Mr. Cuomo, spent less.)

“If this doesn’t prove that political currency is people over money, I do not know what does,” Ms. Biaggi, who spent one-tenth as much as Mr. Klein, said at her victory party. “We have now cut the head of the I.D.C. snake.”

Mr. Klein did not appear at his watch party.

Also defeated were five other former I.D.C. members: Senators Tony Avella and Jose Peralta in Queens; Senator Jesse Hamilton in Brooklyn; Senator Marisol Alcántara in Manhattan; and Senator David Valesky in Syracuse. They fell to John Liu, Jessica Ramos, Zellnor Myrie, Robert Jackson and Rachel May, respectively.

The only former I.D.C. members to survive the primary were Senator Diane Savino, of Staten Island, and Senator David Carlucci, of Rockland County.

In another high-profile race, Senator Martin Dilan, who was not part of the I.D.C., was defeated by Julia Salazar, a 27-year-old democratic socialist whose candidacy energized young voters in swaths of gentrifying Brooklyn, despite near-constant controversy in the final weeks of the campaign.

“This is a victory for workers,” Ms. Salazar told supporters at a party in Bushwick.

The I.D.C.’s challengers had offered themselves as “true blue” alternatives to a cast of so-called fake Democrats. Though the I.D.C. disbanded in April— the move was widely viewed as a concession to rising pressure from the party’s left wing — the challengers were not satisfied, insisting that the incumbents had proven they were more interested in self-advancement than progressive change.

In reality, the challengers’ victories alone will have little effect on the fate of progressive legislation in Albany. The true test of that will come in November’s general election, when Democrats seek to flip several Republican-held Senate seats.

But the challengers’ wins sent a resounding symbolic message: The restless, impatient mood that has swelled within the national Democratic Party this year had come for local incumbents, too.

Several of the I.D.C. challengers, as well as Ms. Salazar, had aligned themselves with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old first-time politician who, in a June congressional primary, upset Representative Joseph Crowley, the No. 4 Democrat in the House. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Ms. Biaggi and Ms. Ramos. Ms. Ramos’s district overlaps with Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s.

Ms. Salazar in particular drew comparisons to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned vigorously for Ms. Salazar, dispatching her own volunteers to Brooklyn to canvass for her and promoting her to her large Twitter following.

“I think young women are a very visual, but also functional, embodiment of a rebuke of basically New York’s old-boy network,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview at Ms. Biaggi’s party. “And voters get that.”

The I.D.C. challengers also allied themselves with Ms. Nixon’s opposition to Mr. Cuomo, and to Zephyr Teachout’s attorney general bid. The Working Families Party, a progressive minor party and frequent antagonist of the governor, endorsed all the challengers and provided training and staff for their campaigns.
Bill Lipton, the state director of the W.F.P., cast the I.D.C. losses as a major triumph, even in the face of Ms. Nixon’s defeat.

“The center of gravity has shifted, and Andrew Cuomo will face a radically different Albany,” he said.

Still, the divergent fates of the challengers, compared to Ms. Nixon and Ms. Teachout, suggested that the I.D.C. upsets spoke more to the strength of anti-Republican antipathy across the Democratic Party, than of anti-establishment sentiment in its far-left flank.

At a polling site in the Bronx, several voters who said they had chosen Ms. Biaggi also picked Mr. Cuomo over Ms. Nixon, citing the governor’s experience.

That was also true of many of the establishment figures who endorsed the challengers yet backed Mr. Cuomo, such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Representative Carolyn Maloney and the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson.

Indeed, for allies of the insurgent slate that had challenged the Democratic Party machine, the anti-I.D.C. candidates emerged as the only electoral victors of the night.

Mr. Klein and his fellow former I.D.C. members, by contrast, campaigned as virtual islands. While they nominally won the support of Mr. Cuomo and their Democratic colleagues in the Senate after announcing their dissolution, Mr. Cuomo — who himself has been accused of tacitly supporting the I.D.C. — said little if anything about them on the campaign trail.

The I.D.C. members had faced primary challenges before, and they had long been a target for Democratic activists. But that anger, for years restricted to only the most politically attuned New Yorkers, crested over the past few months, in tandem with the surge of progressive energy nationwide after the 2016 presidential election.

[Make sense of the people, issues and ideas shaping the 2018 elections with our new politics newsletter.]

Activists began calling the I.D.C. members “Trump Democrats” and sought to educate voters who knew nothing about their senators’ so-called betrayal.

“We didn’t exist a few months ago, and now we’ve raised over $250,000,” said Jim Casteleiro, the campaign manager of No I.D.C. NY, a volunteer group.

Nearly all the voters at the Bronx poll site who backed Ms. Biaggi cited Mr. Klein’s role in the I.D.C. as a motivating factor.

“He’s a good man, but I don’t think it’s time for ushering in another Republican majority,” Peter McHugh, 59, said of Mr. Klein.

Also potentially harmful to Mr. Klein was the barrage of negative headlines in recent months, including an accusation of sexual misconduct against him and a state Board of Elections finding of improper campaign financing.

The challengers’ victories boosted the emerging progressive narrative that the old political model — buying expensive television ads, cozying up to real estate, corralling union support — had been displaced by vigorous grass-roots organizing.

Each challenger outspent his or her opponent on Facebook advertisements, sometimes by a huge margin. Ms. Biaggi and her allies spent between $14,500 and $93,800 on Facebook ads since May, while Mr. Klein and his supporters spent between $2,400 and $14,796.

Ms. Salazar adopted similar tactics against Mr. Dilan, who although he was not a member of the I.D.C. was successfully portrayed as another out-of-touch corporate Democrat. The Democratic Socialists of America, of which Ms. Salazar is a member, deployed its full organizing power for her in Brooklyn.

A string of negative headlines about Ms. Salazar in the final weeks of the campaign — suggesting that she had misled reporters and voters about her immigration status, religious background and socioeconomic status — seemed to have little impact.

Still, Lina Newton, a political-science professor at Hunter College, noted the geographic limitations to the grass-roots organizing that has propelled the insurgent candidates to victory. Ms. Nixon, after all, deployed similar tactics in a statewide race to no avail.

“Personal outreach is much more important on a local level,” Professor Newton said.

And on that local level on Thursday, it was potent. Ms. Biaggi, in an interview, gestured to the sneakers on her feet, calling the previous hours “the most exhausting day in my life.”

For Mr. Klein, she had a simple message: “It was a tough fight. And, I should also say, we should thank him for his service,” she said. “But his time is up.”