Angry constituents confront pol about joining breakaway Dem group
by Benjamin Fang
Feb 08, 2017 | 2109 views | 0 0 comments | 63 63 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Hundreds of irate community members packed a town hall meeting last Friday night to demand answers from State Senator Jose Peralta about why he joined the breakaway Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC) in Albany.

The IDC, which now has eight members, has formed a coalition with the Senate Republicans to gain control of the chamber. Peralta joined Brooklyn Senator Jesse Hamilton and Manhattan Senator Marisol Alcantara as the faction’s latest additions.

At the contentious town hall in Jackson Heights, Peralta attempted to explain his decision, but was often interrupted and shouted down. He was booed five minutes into speaking.

The Jackson Heights lawmaker tried to make the case that by joining the IDC and working with Republicans, he’ll have the power to stop bills he disagrees with and push forward more legislation that benefits his district.

“If you’re going to wait on the regular Democrats, all of this is going to fall,” Peralta said. “This arrangement, this coalition, is about making sure that we as independent Democrats push back when it’s conservative and push forward when it’s progressive.”

Peralta said he’ll be able to move ahead with legislation related to raising the age for minors incarcerated at Rikers Island, the DREAM Act for undocumented immigrants to receive financial aid, homeless reform, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s free college tuition proposal.

The only issue he mentioned that Republicans would get in return is property tax relief, which affects Republican districts in Long Island and upstate New York, he said.

Though the State Senate has 32 elected Democrats, one Brooklyn senator, Simcha Felder, has decided to caucus with Republicans. At the start of the term, the IDC, then with seven members, announced they would form a coalition with the GOP again.

Peralta identified five conservative mainline Democrats, pointing specifically to Felder, as reasons why the Democratic conference wouldn’t be able to deliver the same results.

Though Peralta was the Minority Whip under the Senate Democrats, he placed blame on the leadership for the party’s failures. He said while their strategy was to “push hostile amendments so we can get press hits,” he was the one pushing back.

“It was the Minority Leader and the Deputy Minority Leader,” he said, referring to Yonkers Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Queens Senator Michael Gianaris. “They are the ones who have the failed leadership because below them, there are no strategies. There are no ways to move forward.”

Many constituents in the room didn’t buy it. One community member said Peralta’s district, which encompasses East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Corona and parts of Astoria and Woodside, is largely progressive and Democratic.

“I think there’s a real feeling in this room that we didn’t send you to Albany to occasionally caucus with the Democrats and caucus with the Republicans,” one man said. “We sent you to be part of a team. We need you on that team.”

But Peralta said if there was no coalition agreement, the Republicans could take charge and move forward with their agenda without consulting Democrats. Now that the IDC is part of the coalition, they have a say in the agenda.

Peralta said if the mainline Democrats gain more seats, particularly in Republican-leaning areas like Long Island or upstate, then he would commit to “bring the party under one umbrella.”

“In two years, you’ll have an opportunity to vote,” Peralta said, as senators are elected every two years. “But now, keep an open mind so you can see the results brought not only to the community, but also the stances we take on behalf of our community.”

While some in the room applauded, others said they will bring a primary challenge to Peralta come 2018.

“I am here to tell you that as a millennial, we are civically engaged and we will run against you,” said one Elmhurst resident to thunderous applause. “I love my neighborhood. I am devastated that I have to come here and look at you siding with Republicans.”

Pastor Lisa Jenkins of East Elmhurst asked Peralta if he felt “any sort of remorse” for joining the IDC without letting his constituents know in advance.

“You have done this on the down-low,” she said.

Another resident told the crowd that Peralta originally didn’t want to have a town hall meeting. Instead, he wanted to schedule a meeting with her and other people who disagreed with his choice in private.

“You really resisted having this town hall and I found that really discouraging. You didn’t want to have a public forum,” she said. “That was really shocking to me.”

She also said he didn’t announce the forum to the community. Constituents who demanded the meeting “were the ones promoting it,” she said. Many in the audience asked for regular meetings with the senator.

Peralta committed to another one “some time in the future,” possibly after the State Legislature passes a budget in April.

“Then we can see results,” he said. “After the budget, we can really talk about these issues.”

Outside of the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights, more than 100 people who couldn’t get into the standing room-only meeting gathered outside the building. A handful were supportive of Peralta and the IDC, but a majority were upset by the senator’s decision.

Behind police barricades, the two factions protested, chanted and screamed at one another for hours. Even after the town hall meeting had wrapped up, they continued to clash before Peralta left through a back door.

Jackson Heights resident Cassandra Ritas was among those stuck waiting outside. She used to work for Manhattan Senator Liz Krueger, a progressive Democrat.

Ritas said she didn’t support the IDC to begin with, especially because it prevents mainline Democrats from exercising majority power.

“Peralta’s notion that this is a path to a progressive agenda just seems like such misguided leadership to me,” Ritas said. “To do this at this time, the first week of the Trump administration, is so disturbing.”

She said President Donald Trump’s policies, such as the travel ban, are damaging to vulnerable people in her neighborhood.

“We have undocumented immigrants, we have probably the second largest gay population in the city,” she said. “We have a huge Muslim population.”

Ritas said she’s ready to vote for another candidate to replace Peralta in the next election.

“I’d love to see a female candidate. We need more progressive Dems and we need more women in the pipeline,” she said. “We have to be active everyday to push for the policies we want and the candidates we want.”

Not everyone was against his decision. East Elmhurst resident Norma Jimenez struck a conciliatory tone and said residents should wait and see the results.

“Now he has to deliver,” she said. “He’s going to have time, and think about what he’ll do for us.”

Ultimately, she supports his decision to join the IDC. But Jimenez felt that the meeting was an “expression of discontent,” and Peralta should pay more attention to his constituents.

“If what he said is true, we have to give him the opportunity,” she said. “I would like him to be more in touch with the community.”
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