An unofficial caucus made up of several moderate Democrats and newly-elected Republicans in the New York City Council looks to beef up its ranks in hopes of having greater sway in the speaker’s race.
The Common Sense Caucus, a latent group that formed in 2017 with the mission to offer a more moderate influence over the council’s legislative agenda, sees the opportunity to grow after Republicans increased their seats to five members in this year’s election just as several moderate Democrats already expressed a commitment to the caucus. By increasing their numbers, founding members point to their augmented political might, and the speaker race offers a test of whether this bloc can thwart progressive policies under Mayor-elect Eric Adams.
Its co-founders, Democrat Robert Holden of Queens and Republican Joseph Borelli of Staten Island, claim the caucus will have at least 10 members. So far, confirmed members include Democrat Kalman Yeger of Brooklyn as well as newly-elected Republican council members David Carr of Staten Island and Joann Ariola of Queens. Holden declined to disclose the names of other members.
“If we’re a bloc of 10 or 12 votes, then we become a force to be reckoned with,” Holden said. “Most of the time [the council] overlooked us. And I think that will change with a bloc of a good amount of votes.”
Twenty-six of the council’s 51 votes are needed to become speaker, whose power lies in setting the legislative agenda that holds major implications for millions of New Yorkers. The speaker also appoints members to committees, giving them power to bottle up or advance legislation, and the position is traditionally perceived as a check on the mayor’s power.
But talk of Republicans working alongside Democrats to influence the speaker race has stoked the ire of influential advocacy groups who want the race to be decided solely by Democrats.
In prior years, the Common Sense Caucus has had little influence in the city council given its few members. It remains an unofficial caucus, though Holden said he submitted paperwork this week to have it officially recognized by the speaker’s office. An official designation will offer the group a meeting room and personnel to issue statements, said Holden, who remains confident current Council Speaker Corey Johnson will recognize the caucus.
Republicans gained two council members in the last election, Vickie Paladino of Queens and Inna Vernikov of Brooklyn, and given Borelli’s role as the council’s GOP leader, they’re expected to join the caucus. Like Borelli, both Paladino and Vernikov supported former President Donald Trump. A spokesperson for Paladino did not return a call seeking comment. Vernikov did not respond to a request for comment.
Moderate Democrats in the council include Councilmember James Gennaro and Councilmember-elect Ari Kagan, though their potential caucus membership also remains undetermined. Gennaro and Kagan did not return a request for comment.
Borelli said Republicans and the Common Sense Caucus hope to wield influence to install a speaker candidate that does not “empower the radical far left” but focuses more on quality-of-life concerns, such as public safety and street cleanliness.
As the race for speaker intensifies, Holden said his caucus will have a stronger voice compared to 2017, when members elected current Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a progressive Democrat.
Holden and Borelli would not disclose their picks for speaker, but said they both have been in conversations with all seven candidates running. They include Councilmembers Justin Brannan of Brooklyn, Gale Brewer, Keith Powers, and Carlina Rivera of Manhattan, Diana Ayala of the Bronx/Manhattan, as well as Adrienne Adams and Francisco Moya of Queens.
Sensing the threat of the new alliance, advocacy groups for left-leaning causes have mounted a defense against Democrats caucusing with Republicans without mentioning the Common Sense Caucus by name. On Wednesday, 10 groups sent an open letter to speaker candidates urging them to disregard any support from Republicans aligned with former President Donald Trump. Groups that signed onto the letter include Make The Road Action, Met Council Action, and New York Communities For Change.
In the letter, the groups said such power-sharing groups mirror those of the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference, a faction of breakaway Democrats in the state Senate that caucused with the Republican majority from 2011 to 2018.
“As the Council moves toward determining its new leadership, it must not turn to this type of regressive arrangement — particularly with a fringe group of Republican Council Members who openly support Donald Trump’s racist, authoritarian politics,” read the letter.
Even with opposition, Holden maintains the group will forge ahead, functioning as an independent bloc free of party influence.
“Our allegiance is not to any unions or any factions or other council members, our allegiance is to our constituents and what’s best for the constituents or the city,” Holden said. “We don’t follow party lines; we follow our common sense and that’s the guide that we’re going to fall back on.”
Holden noted his group seeks to push back against any city tax increases, oppose any new efforts to reduce the NYPD’s budget, and speak out against stripping the NYPD of investigating traffic collisions. They are opposed to a proposal that would allow non-citizens the right to vote, a measure that is slated for a council vote on December 9th.
If the caucus grows in membership, Borelli said the Common Sense Caucus could have an impact on legislative matters.
“I think organizing the members who are moderate members [is] an important counterbalance to the left, which has traditionally been very good at organizing their members,” Borelli said.
Shortly after the GOP wins in the November election, Borelli held conversations with speaker candidates at the annual Somos Conference in Puerto Rico, according to Chris Coffey, co-chief executive officer for Tusk Strategies, a political consulting group.
“He went from being an important guy in the speaker’s race to a very important guy in the speaker’s race and that was clear just by spending time with him,” Coffey said.
But even with a few more Republican votes in the council, Coffey maintains that the overwhelming majority of Democrats will control the agenda.
“The council’s still going to be a pretty left place in the swing of things. It may not be far left, all-the-way progressive, nor is it going to be Republican, it will be somewhere in the middle,” Coffey said.