Dozens of Jackson Heights residents braved freezing temperatures last Thursday night to demand that State Senator Jose Peralta leave the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) immediately.
Peralta joined the eight-member IDC, which has a power-sharing agreement with the Senate Republicans, last month. Days after his decision, he faced hundreds of angry constituents at a town hall meeting, where residents called him a traitor and vowed to vote him out in 2018.
To continue the momentum, protesters enlisted the support of local elected officials, who said they were hurt by Peralta’s decision to leave the Democratic Conference.
“We worked hard to get Jose elected to office,” said Councilman Daniel Dromm. “I never expected he would do something like this. I was really disappointed to learn it.”
Dromm and Peralta came out of the same Democratic club in Jackson Heights, the New Visions Democratic Club. They both represent similar constituencies in Queens, which why was the move was especially painful for Dromm.
“It is personally hurtful to me that he did this, and especially that he didn’t even discuss it with me,” he said. “I don’t know what he was thinking when he did it, to be honest.”
At the rally, Dromm demanded that Peralta return to the mainline Democrats immediately. He also asked Peralta to talk to IDC leader Jeff Klein, a state senator representing parts of the Bronx and Westchester, to apologize for “maligning the community.”
After the February town hall, Peralta accused some “outside agitators” of infiltrating the meeting. Meanwhile, Brooklyn State Senator Jesse Hamilton and Manhattan State Senator Marisol Alcantara had also begun to face local backlash over their decision to join the IDC.
Klein labeled attacks on the IDC senators as racist. Dromm took exception to the comments.
“Klein is an outside agitator, he doesn’t know this community,” Dromm said. “We were the people who went out and did the petitioning for Jose and helped Jose. He was a member of our club. To call the members of our club outside agitators and racist was just horrible.”
Councilman Costa Constantinides recalled helping Peralta back in 2010 with petitioning during his state senate campaign.
“He has betrayed this community, going to caucus with the party of Trump at a time when our values are the most attacked,” Constantinides said. “When our immigrant families are feeling unease and possible deportation, he stands with the party that will not protect them.”
At the town hall, Peralta touted the progressive legislative accomplishments brokered by the IDC. But Constantinides said Republicans won’t act on issues like the Women’s Equality Act, raising the age for minors incarcerated at Rikers Island, and voting reform.
“Anyone who has joined the IDC is standing in direct opposition to those values,” he said. “It is unacceptable to any of our Democratic colleagues to be enabling a Republican majority that is bottling up the progressive values of New York State.”
The DREAM Act, which would enable undocumented immigrants in the state to receive financial aid for college, passed the Assembly for the fifth time earlier this month. Peralta, who co-sponsored the legislation in the State Senate, has made it a priority.
The Assembly also passed a bill by Queens Assemblyman Francisco Moya to make New York a “sanctuary state.” But State Senator John Flanagan, who leads the Senate Republicans, has opposed both bills.
“The Republican majority will not bring those bills to the floor because they do not believe in these issues,” Constantinides said. “In their core values, that’s not who they are.”
Unlike some protesters, both councilmen stopped short of asking for Peralta’s resignation. They wanted to give Peralta a chance to rejoin the mainline Democrats.
“If he comes back to the conference, we can talk about repairing the relationships as well,” Dromm said.
Constantinides called for the entire IDC to be disbanded.
“There are always consequences for actions, but right now we’re just saying come home,” he said, “for all of IDC to come back to the Democratic Conference.”
Shekar Krishnan, president of the New Visions Democratic Club, said their board voted to remove Peralta from the club after his switch to the IDC. He said Peralta would be welcomed back “if and when” he rejoins the Democratic Conference.
“Senator Peralta, these are the faces of your constituents calling on you to join us here on the front lines of our resistance, fighting back as Democrats for Democratic values,” he told the crowd. “Our community deserves no less and demands no less.”
Krishnan said members felt a mixture of shock, anger and disappointment when they first heard the news. It was even more surprising because at a January meeting at the club, Peralta, who was then the Minority Whip of the Democratic Conference, had “railed against the IDC,” according to Krishnan.
Jackson Heights is also home to a large population of Muslims, undocumented immigrants and members of the LGBT community, making the area “the front line” of attacks by Trump, Krishnan said.
“That’s what makes this move so hurtful. He is empowering the Republicans, who are together at the state level and the federal level,” he said. “They’re the ones implementing Donald Trump’s agenda against our community.”
But there is a silver lining for the club. Membership has increased from 300 to 400 in the few months since Trump’s election, according to Krishnan.
He joined the elected officials in calling for Peralta’s return to the Democratic Conference. But if he doesn’t by 2018, when he’s up for re-election, he could face a primary opponent.
Peralta has easily defeated opponents in past elections, taking home 79 percent of the vote in last year’s general election.
“I think if the senator does not rejoin the Democratic Party and doesn’t heed the calls of our community, I think he will have a challenger in the next election because the community demands that,” Krishnan said. “The community won’t tolerate any less.”
Susan Kang, a Jackson Heights resident and associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, helped organize Thursday’s rally. She said the IDC is one of the main reasons why Albany will “continue to stay broken.”
“It’s not just the constituents of the IDC senators who are hurt by their decisions,” Kang said at the rally. “It’s all of New York State. These senators are keeping all of New York State hostage from the progressive policies we deserve.”
Kang said the town hall meeting earlier in the month “spawned a ripple reaction” not only throughout IDC districts, but also within the chambers of state government. She said she wanted to keep up that pressure.
“We don’t want him to think that, ‘We gave them the public meeting they wanted, so now they’ll go away,’” she said. “Rather, we want him to know that was sort of a beginning of a conversation we’re trying to have with him to get him to caucus with Democrats again.”
The next step in this “grassroots movement,” as Kang called it, may be an informational meeting with local residents. She said she hopes to translate material into several languages because Jackson Heights has a diverse population.
Kang added that it’s “too early to talk about” a primary challenge. She wants to give him a chance to “come to his senses” and realize that there’s a consequence to joining the IDC.
Amid rumors that more mainline Democrats are mulling a jump to the IDC, Kang said she hopes the reaction from Jackson Heights will dissuade them from leaving.
“We’re raising the price politically of joining the IDC,” she said. “A lot of people are watching what’s going on in Peralta’s district. They’re watching and learning.”
In response to the rally, Peralta issued a statement about his recent actions to provide “real results” for his constituents.
“While I understand that some of my constituents are frustrated with what is happening on the federal level that may trickle down and negatively affect us as a state, now more than ever we cannot sit on the sidelines and not have a place at the table,” Peralta said.
He pointed to a forum he hosted last Wednesday night at PS 19 in Corona that provided information about the recent immigration actions. Peralta also announced the creation of a “sanctuary district,” in which he will partner with community organizations to provide legal assistance to immigrants.
All IDC members are participating in the “Immigrant Defense Coalition,” Peralta said. It establishes a hotline for people to call with immigration questions.
“I look forward to continuing delivering results for my community and having a healthy debate,” Peralta said.