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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Simcha Felder is at the center of a power struggle (and he likes it that way)

State Senator Simcha Felder has an outsized influence

State Senator Simcha Felder has an outsized influence on the state because he can sway control of the State Senate. Photo Credit: Newsday / Dave Sanders

Simcha Felder tends to find himself in the middle of things.

He’s the Democratic state senator from Brooklyn who won a newly redistricted seat in 2012 to represent Borough Park and parts of Flatbush and Midwood. He ran as a Democrat, but after winning he caucused with Republicans. Since then, he has been empowered unlike your typical non-leadership legislator because of the makeup of the State Senate: Republicans hang onto their majority thanks to Felder’s ambivalence about party loyalty, plus the existence of an eight-member group of renegade Democrats who have aligned with Republicans until now.

That’s the Independent Democratic Conference, much bemoaned in this era when progressives are calling out “fake Democrats.” On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens and assorted union heavyweights knocked together some heads ahead of Cuomo’s gubernatorial primary. In magnanimous style, Cuomo and Democratic senators said the IDC would come back into the fold.

Which mostly means Felder is even more in the middle than usual.

There are two special elections for State Senate seats on April 24. Should Democrats hold their leads in polls and prevail, the party will have a one-person majority. But only if you include Felder.

Who is this quiet Kings County power broker?

Felder’s relatively infrequent news releases are rarely about the broad-brush national issues that so many of his colleagues jump at to make news. He marches to his own drum and is opposed to many Democratic priorities such as strong abortion laws. The Orthodox Jewish senator is well-supported in the Orthodox Jewish areas of the district, and he is highly focused on constituent issues that benefit those groups. Just last week, for example, he almost singlehandedly held up the signing of the state budget over the issue of oversight of yeshivas. (Budget language ended up loosening restrictions, though all restrictions weren’t removed.)

In line with this focus on constituent services, even critics begrudgingly say he does hear their complaints, even if he doesn’t always act on them.

He has engaged, for example, with the activist group New York Senate District 17 for Progress, including meeting with members, says former steering committee member Blake Morris.

But the meetings don’t tend to change his relatively conservative positions and votes, from attempts to put armed security guards in schools to killing a plastic bag fee in New York.

To change the script in this part of Brooklyn, Morris has filed paperwork to challenge Felder in a Democratic primary this year.

Morris, an attorney from Flatbush who has lived in Brooklyn for decades and is Jewish, says he never planned to run for office but Felder’s work with Republicans convinced him to take the plunge. Morris may benefit from progressive energy in the fall, but it might be an uphill battle, considering that swathes of the district differed from most of the borough in voting decisively for President Donald Trump in 2016.

What does the future hold?

Michael Kinnucan, a researcher for the Democratic Socialists of America’s electoral group, says he had been looking for a primary candidate in Felder’s district for 2018. A relatively high rate of Medicaid and food stamp recipients in the area made Kinnucan keen to find someone to build a challenge around economic issues. But he concluded after looking at turnout and party registration statistics that Felder was “pretty much unbeatable.” If he lost a primary, for example, Felder could always run (and win) on the Republican line, which he held in his last race.

All of which means Felder once again has a good chance to protect his influence, even with a unified Democratic Party. That will likely involve some reading of the political winds. Will a blue wave pick up multiple Democratic State Senate seats during the fall election? That might convince Felder to hop across the aisle soon before his unique leverage becomes worthless. But if he’s less certain that Republicans will lose badly, expect to see some waffling (and dealmaking) over the coming months and perhaps he will remain where he is.

On Tuesday, Felder released an opaque statement concerning the unity deal that left him plenty of room to maneuver: “I’m only loyal to G-d, my wife, my constituents and New Yorkers.” But the rest of the statement was typical of his open-relationship view of party politics: “I don’t care about political parties and more and more New Yorkers feel the same way.”

Sounds like someone still happy in the middle.

This story has been updated to clarify that Blake Morris is no longer a member of the steering committee for New York Sentate District 17 for Progress. 

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