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He Led a Group of Disloyal New York Democrats. Will It Cost Him His Seat?

He Led a Group of Disloyal New York Democrats. Will It Cost Him His Seat?

Money and power are no strangers to Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, so it should be no surprise that with his political life on the line, he is aggressively deploying both.Mr. Klein, who led the Independent Democratic Conference, now defunct, is blanketing his primary race with money, turning the contest into New York’s most expensive state…


Money and power are no strangers to Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, so it should be no surprise that with his political life on the line, he is aggressively deploying both.

Mr. Klein, who led the Independent Democratic Conference, now defunct, is blanketing his primary race with money, turning the contest into New York’s most expensive state legislative race this cycle.

The stakes are high: The I.D.C. was a group of breakaway Democrats that traded party loyalty for power, working with Senate Republicans to help them control the chamber. In exchange, Mr. Klein and his fellow members secured lucrative appointments and were seen as a potential swing-vote bloc.

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

Whenthe I.D.C. folded in April, Mr. Klein was given the position of Senate deputy minority leader, and all was seemingly forgiven.

But some voters — especially those who belong to President Trump resistance groups — have not forgiven the eight I.D.C. members, especially Mr. Klein. They have backed his opponent, Alessandra Biaggi, a lawyer in Pelham who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and later in the office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s counsel.

She has been endorsedby Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; the New York City Council speaker, Corey Johnson; the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whoseupset primary victoryover Representative Joseph Crowley in June has been cited as a model for Democrats seeking to defeat entrenched incumbents.

Mr. Klein has responded, spending $2.4 million in the race; a third of that was spent in the last three weeks of August alone.

The money has allowed Mr. Klein to air television ads and carpet the 34th Senate District, which covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, with mailers. Two of them suggested that former President Barack Obama and Mr. Cuomo had endorsed his candidacy; neither has done so.

One ad features a photo of Mr. Obama with a quote about the importance of facts and truth. The other has a large picture of Mr. Klein smiling broadly with Mr. Cuomo, along with a quote froma 2014 article in The New York Timesin which the governor praised the senator at a campaign rally, saying: “We’re going to keep this state moving forward, and Jeff Klein is going to be a leader who is going to make that possible.”

Ms. Biaggi has relied on mailers, digital-media advertising, phone calls, postcard writing and door-to-door canvassing, aided by 500 volunteers, whom she called “the life source” of the campaign.

“Voters are starting to understand what is going on,” Ms. Biaggi, 32, said in a phone interview. “I will go to someone’s door and they’ll say, ‘Oh, didn’t he do that thing with the Republicans?’”

But whether typical voters comprehend the arcane — some might say Machiavellian — deal that Mr. Klein engineered with Republicans remains to be seen.

“The average voter is not aware of the I.D.C., at least not in any detail,” said George Picoulas, a lecturer in political science at Pace University. “But it’s not the average voter who turns out in primaries like this. It’s the activist base.”

Mr. Klein has sought to explain his deal with Republicans, saying he formed the conference because of a dysfunctional Democratic body that included Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate, who in 2012were convicted of financial wrongdoing.

His power-sharing bargain with Republicans madeMr. Klein, 58, one of the most influential members of the Legislature. He sprinkled goodies like free boat rides, theater tickets and firework displays on his constituents. And he takes credit for pulling Republicans to the left, pushing through such progressive legislation as a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave.

In a statement, Mr. Klein’s campaign spokeswoman, Barbara Brancaccio, said he “has shown up and delivered for Bronx and Westchester residents.” She accused Ms. Biaggi of waging “a civil war among Democrats across the state.”

Many Democrats in the district say they became aware of the I.D.C. only after the election of President Trump.

“It became clear that one of the biggest problems at the state level was this thing called the I.D.C.,” said Rebecca Lish, an actor and mother of two who lives in Riverdale. “I realized that I had been voting for the head of the I.D.C. over and over again. You see this guy in the district and he has on a blue tie. But then he goes up to Albany and he switches to a red tie.”

Ms. Lish has since become involved in a number of progressive groups in the Bronx and beyond, and has volunteered tirelessly forMs. Biaggi.

“I believe Alessandra Biaggi will be a stronger advocate for the issues that matter to me and my family,” said Ms. Lish, pointing to stalled bills dealing with abortion rights, single-payer health care and immigrant protections, among other things.

Mr. Klein does have his ardent supporters, particularly residents like Monique Johnson, whom he has helped in small but meaningful ways. As president of the Throggs Neck Resident Council, she is the liaison between the 1,700 residents of a public housing complex in the Bronx and the city’s Housing Authority.

In a phone interview, Ms. Johnson said Mr. Klein had been generous with his time and discretionary dollars: calling bingo numbers; running meetings about heat and hot water; donating school supplies and holiday toys; helping children get tested for lead exposure; and securing $1.5 million to overhaul a ball field.

“Everything that I do in this development, he is a part of, and I mean that literally,” Ms. Johnson said.

Despite her traction with progressive groups, Ms. Biaggi has struggled to amass a significant fraction of Mr. Klein’s war chest. According to state election filings, she has raised $445,000 to his $1.9 million. (He has also spent money left over from previous campaigns.)

Last month, he took a $100,000 contribution from a campaign fund-raising committee set up by the state’s Independence Party on behalf of I.D.C. members. In July, the state’s top election enforcement officerordered the former members to return hundreds of thousands of dollarsfrom the committee. A month earlier, a State Supreme Court justice had ruled the fund-raising arrangement improper.

As in most elections, outcomes will hinge on turnout. Primaries usually yield low turnouts, which tends to favor incumbents. But this year could be different.

“In the Trump era, the progressives are more energized,” said Mr. Picoulas, the Pace University lecturer. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the turnout in this year’s primary is higher than four years ago.”

All of the former I.D.C. members are facing primary challenges. In the 13th District in Queens, Jessica Ramos, a former aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio, is opposing Senator Jose R. Peralta. In central Brooklyn’s 20th District, Senator Jesse Hamilton is facing a challenge from Zellnor Myrie, a lawyer and housing advocate.

Elsewhere in New York City, Jasmine Robinson, a legal secretary and community activist, is taking on Senator Diane J. Savino in the 23rd District, which covers parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn. The former city comptroller, John C. Liu, is challenging Senator Tony Avella in the 11th District in Queens, and Senator Marisol Alcantara is defending her seat against Robert Jackson, a former city councilman, in the 31st District in western Manhattan.

Outside the city, Senator David Carlucci, whose 38th District includes parts of Rockland and Westchester Counties, is fending off an insurgent campaign by Julie Goldberg, a librarian and writer. In upstate New York, Rachel May, who directs sustainability education at Syracuse University, is trying to unseat Senator David Valesky in the 53rd district.

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