Senate debate gets personal

Mar 16, 2017

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Deputy Minority Leader Michael Gianaris express their dismay over the budget process outside the state Senate chamber.

Tensions between opposing groups of Democrats in the Senate reached a flash point this week over whose faction would be allowed to present their budget priorities for a floor debate in an exchange that included some racially charged name-calling.

A growing group of eight breakaway Democrats, who rule the Senate in an informal coalition with 31 Republicans, have left regular Democrats smarting for some time now.

But the mainstream Democrats’ patience reached a breaking point when they found that the Independent Democratic Conference was permitted to introduce its own blueprint of budget priorities on the Senate floor, while the regular Democrats — who have about two dozen members — were prevented from doing so.

“I’m outraged,” Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said when she first learned of the development.

Stewart-Cousins and the other mainstream Democrats are trying to use to their advantage President Donald Trump’s unpopularity among most New Yorkers, and they have increasingly tried to tie the IDC to Trump, because of its coalition with the Senate GOP.

Sen. Michael Gianaris, the deputy Senate Democratic leader, made the connection explicit during debate on the Senate floor.

“The Republicans are choosing which Democrats they want to hear from,” said Gianaris, who said it was not a surprise that the GOP picked “what the Daily News called Donald Trump’s New York Democrats.”

That was too much for one of the independent Democrats’ newest members, Sen. Marisol Alcantara, who got personal with Gianaris, a Greek-American with a degree from an Ivy League college.

“At the end of the day, he is a white man with a degree from Harvard,” Alcantara said. “And I refuse to have him use his white privilege.”

The Senate erupted. Sen. Joseph Griffo, who was presiding over the Senate, tried to get back on track, and urged Alcantara to “avoid personal invective.”

Alcantara, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic at age 12, was finally allowed to continue.

“I would like to know how many times my colleague has been called the n-word,” said Alcantara, who then used a racial epithet to describe other names that she said she had been called. “How many times has my colleague or any of his family members been stopped and frisked?”

The remarks caused Gianaris to lose his temper.

“There’s a colleague here who talked about me, and who frankly knows nothing about me. Nothing,” Gianaris said. “She doesn’t know that my father had his home literally burned to the ground by the Nazis.”

Gianaris said his parents immigrated to the United States with nothing, and he makes no apologies for becoming successful.

The bickering prompted a rare rebuke from Republican Senate Leader John Flanagan, who urged members to exhibit “decorum and professionalism.”

Afterward, Sen. Jeff Klein, the IDC leader, said the point of his members’ separate budget resolution was to prove that they are serious about governing, not to make “political points.” But he said the remarks were “unfortunate,” and Klein did not exactly defend Alcantara’s comments.

“Senator Alcantara is very passionate,” Klein said. “She takes her job and her community and her heritage very seriously.”

Despite Klein’s assertion that his conference is growing in influence and acceptance, the IDC is experiencing some blowback for cooperating with Senate Republicans. At town hall meetings earlier this winter, some of its members faced angry crowds, who called them traitors and demanded they be thrown out of office. The independent Democrats blame outside organizers for the disruptions.

It may seem trivial to fight about whose budget resolution gets more attention, but in New York, the spending plans approved in late March often contain non-related policy items, like whether to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as juveniles, not adults, in the state prison system, a proposal known as “Raise the Age,” and whether to allow ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to operate outside of New York City.