Simcha Felder, the rogue state senator who held up the entire state budget last week in a bid to end government oversight of Orthodox yeshiva curricula, just got handed a royal flush.
A reordering of the Albany political calculus on Wednesday made him the most powerful man in New York politics. The surprise dissolution of a breakaway caucus of Senate Democrats leaves Felder as the last piece the Democratic Party needs to consolidate control of the entire state government.
If he wants to make a deal, Felder has a chance to try to extract major concessions from the Democratic leadership in return for rejoining them.
“They’re empowering Simcha more than he was before,” said one Jewish New York political operative. “He’s not going to flip unless they give him a tremendous, tremendous deal.”
In the surprise announcement Wednesday, leaders of the Independent Democratic Caucus said they were ending their alliance with the Republicans and rejoining the mainline Democrats. Felder, a Democrat who has caucused with the Republicans since 2013, is now the last holdout, and a key to the Republicans’ continued control of the chamber.
Felder, who represents a district in the heart of Orthodox Brooklyn, is a much-maligned figure among New York Democrats. The new political reality in Albany won’t make him any more popular, and could bring a wave of unwanted attention to him — and the Orthodox Jewish community.
“It shines a spotlight on Simcha,” said one Democratic Jewish insider. “I do think it leaves him exposed.”
Felder told Spectrum News that he won’t make a decision about joining the Democrats until after two special elections are decided on April 24. The Democrats would need to hold both of the seats to remain within a single seat of the majority. They already control the lower house by a wide margin.
At a press conference about the unification on Wednesday afternoon, Cuomo sought to downplay the importance of wooing Felder to join the Democrats, according to tweets from reporters on the scene.
Even if (Felder) comes back, you’re right at 32…we know from his past votes that Sen. Felder does not agree with a lot of the issues this conference wants to pass, so really we need to win additional seats in november - @nygovcuomo— Liz Benjamin (@CTLizB) April 4, 2018
The governor, who is facing a primary challenge from progressive actress Cynthia Nixon as he hopes to burnish his credentials for a possible White House run in 2020, focused instead on the need to snatch seats away from the Republicans in November. But that could be little more than a head fake to distract attention for a push to get Felder on board and deliver a Democratic majority before the election.
based on his comments at presser, looks like @NYGovCuomo is not even trying to court Felder. Will be interesting to watch how Cuomo’d court Orthodox Jewish community if primary is tighter than expected.— Jacob Kornbluh (@jacobkornbluh) April 4, 2018
A spokeswoman told the Forward that Felder was on break and not available for interviews. Many Orthodox Jews don’t work the week of Passover. In a statement quoted widely in media outlets, Felder said he was loyal only to “G-d, my wife, my constituents and New Yorkers. I don’t care about political parties and more and more New Yorkers feel the same way.”
A former member of the City Council, Felder is one of the few ultra-Orthodox Jews in elected office in New York. The son of a rabbi, he was known in the City Council for his single-minded campaign against pigeons.
He is said to have few political confidants and is known for relying on his own political instincts.
“He has an internal calculation of what he thinks the right move is and the wrong move is,” the Jewish New York political operative said.
One close advisor is Shiya Ostreicher, a powerful Orthodox lobbyist and a member of the Belz Hasidic community with ties to the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel. Ostreicher did not respond to a request for comment from the Forward.
It’s unclear what leverage Cuomo and the Senate Democrats could wield over Felder. Felder is seen as politically untouchable in his district, which includes the heavily Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhoods of Boro Park, Flatbush, and Midwood.
Felder does face a Democratic primary challenge from Blake Morris, a progressive Jewish lawyer and neighborhood activist. But he has won election by wide margins in the past, and was not opposed at all in the last two election cycles.
“Simcha doesn’t care,” said one Republican political consultant close to the Orthodox community, arguing that Felder would remain with the Republicans. “Right now he’s very happy with where he is.”
Good. And then he can explain to voters why he abandoned his commitment to them for years. https://t.co/BpnE8z7aOJ— Blake Morris (@BlakeMorris4NYS) April 4, 2018
Others say there is plenty that the governor and the Democrats could offer Felder. Despite his best efforts, Felder had to settle last week for a watered-down version of his yeshiva oversight provision last week, after Cuomo’s office called Orthodox leaders to pressure him to relent.
Now, Felder could ask for the full provision, entirely stripping the state education department and local school districts of oversight authority for Orthodox yeshiva curricula, in return for joining the Democrats. Such a deal would likely set off an uproar among Democrats and local activists.
“Simcha Felder will do what’s in the best interest of his constituents,” said Ezra Friedlander, founder and CEO of the Friedlander Group, a political consultancy specializing in ultra-Orthodox clients. “At the top of that list would probably be how yeshivas could be helped.”
If Felder wants to make deal, he’ll need to do it soon. Senate Democrats are hoping to win a handful of GOP-controlled seats in November, feeding off the nationwide anti-Trump energy among the Democratic base. If they do, Felder will lose his value as a swing vote.
“He’s too smart to let that happen,” said one source close to the Senate Democrats. “That’s the problem the Republicans face.”
This story "Is Simcha Felder The Most Powerful Man In New York?" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.