Fifteen months ago, State Senator Jose Peralta made a career-altering decision that shocked the political world.
He joined the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of eight Democrats in the State Senate that had a power-sharing coalition with Republicans.
In the weeks that followed Peralta’s defection from the mainline Democrats, angry constituents demanded that he host a town hall to discuss his decision. Peralta explained that with President Donald Trump in the White House, and his immigrant-heavy district as “ground zero” for attacks, he wanted “a seat at the table” to influence policy and budget.
“We knew he was going to hone in on my district,” he said, referring to Trump, during a meeting with this paper. “What was I going to be able to do about it when I was in the minority?”
He expressed “a level of frustration” at the mainline Democrats because they had no path to a majority. According to the state senator, though the IDC disagreed eight out of 10 times with their Republican counterparts, they were still able to push for progressive legislation.
Some of those accomplishments include raising the age on criminal responsibility, the $15 minimum wage, a $10 million legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants and paid family leave. Peralta also brought home $18 million in school funding for his district, and an additional $5 million that he dispersed to local schools and nonprofits for various capital projects.
“There’s no way it would’ve happened with me being in the minority,” he said.
The backlash was immediate. Constituents and even elected officials hosted multiple rallies, first calling on him to rejoin the mainline Democrats. But when it was clear Peralta would not return, many wanted him ousted altogether.
Three candidates have emerged as primary challengers, all of whom cite the IDC as a reason why they are running.
Peralta said he wasn’t surprised by the response.
“In this business, you can’t please everybody,” he said. “If you try to please everybody, you’re going to go insane in politics. You just can’t do it, it’s impossible.”
The state senator, who now lives in Jackson Heights, said he received even bigger backlash when he voted for marriage equality in 2011. Peralta said he couldn’t even go to his own church in Corona “for a long time.”
The priest at the time even called him out for voting in favor of marriage equality.
“Catholics would look at me and say, ‘How dare you,’” Peralta said. “Or, don’t show your face at church.”
Peralta acknowledged that even after joining the IDC, there were progressive bills that never passed. The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), early voting, codifying abortion rights in Roe v. Wade and the Child Victims Act are some of the issues he said he would pass if he was in the majority.
He would even push for the closing of the LLC loophole, though Peralta doesn’t think Governor Andrew Cuomo would sign off on it.
Above all, Peralta said his main priority is passing the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented students in New York access to financial aid. Even before joining the IDC, Peralta was the main sponsor of the bill.
Though the IDC-Republican coalition never put the DREAM Act up for a vote, including a recently failed hostile amendment attempt in this year’s budget negotiations, Peralta pointed to previous failures to pass the bill.
In 2014, the DREAM Act failed by two votes. Two Democrats, including Brooklyn State Senator Simcha Felder, voted against it.
“My own party killed the DREAM Act on the floor,” Peralta said. “I had to go back and re-negotiate with them.”
The bill was never put up again due to “fighting within my own party,” he said. Peralta figured it was time to try another option to pass the legislation: joining the IDC.
Privately, some Republicans told Peralta they would support the bill, he said. Joining the IDC coalition meant he could at least test that option.
Despite passing a $10 million legal defense fund to protect vulnerable immigrants, Republicans never let the IDC push the DREAM Act forward.
“My job is to exhaust all possibilities so I can deliver for my constituents,” Peralta said. “I exhausted that.”
Fifteen months after joining the IDC, Peralta’s experiment has come to an end. In early April, Cuomo sat down with Jeff Klein, leader of the IDC, and Andrea Stewart-Cousins, leader of the mainline Democrats. Together, they announced a unity deal that would dissolve the IDC back into the Democratic conference.
Under the terms of the deal, Stewart-Cousins would be the sole leader of the Democrats, while Klein would be her deputy. After years of infighting and finger-pointing, how did this peace treaty form?
Peralta explained that the stars “kind of aligned” to make it happen. A month and a half ago, Democratic congressional leadership, including Congressman Joseph Crowley from Queens and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi from California, urged Democrats to take back not only the House of Representatives, but also the New York State Senate.
“They got involved,” Peralta said about congressional Democrats. “Because now is the time.”
Cuomo got on board with Democratic unity, followed by Bronx county leader Marcos Crespo and Brooklyn county leader Frank Seddio. The “last piece of the pie” was labor leaders, including 32BJ, Hotel Trades Council, 1199SEIU and the Transport Workers Union (TWU).
“All of them decided, we’re focused not only on taking back the House, but we got to take back the State Senate,” Peralta said. “All of them were saying the same thing. That hasn’t happened in 50 years.”
Klein then met with the IDC members to discuss their options. They all decided the best decision was to “bite the bullet” and unify with the mainline Democrats.
“We went through the options and everybody came to the same conclusion,” Peralta said. “In the interest of the greater good, if everyone’s coming together, who are we to stop that? We should take a step back.
“That means temporarily we’ll be in the minority again,” he added. “But it’s for the greater good come either after the special election, or come November, we’ll be back in the majority because we took a step back to do this.”
The IDC announced their decision in a big steakhouse meeting in Manhattan. Peralta said Stewart-Cousins was not expecting the IDC’s decision, so she had to take the 24 hours to talk it over with her members.
Ultimately, all parties agreed on Democratic unity in the State Senate.
In September, Peralta will face three challengers in the Democratic Primary: Jessica Ramos, a former de Blasio aide, Andrea Marra, a prominent LGBT activist and Tahseen Chowdhury, a student leader at Stuyvesant High School. All have campaigned on Peralta’s defection to the now-dissolved IDC.
The election will likely be the toughest race for Peralta since his special election victory in 2010 against Hiram Monserrate. He expects anywhere between 18,000 and 20,000 people to vote in this year’s election.
“I take all challenges seriously,” Peralta said. “This is no exception.”
Peralta was recently spotted speaking at a Democratic club associated with Monserrate, raising a few eyebrows. When asked to explain why, the state senator said the club had organized an event to honor local women. Some of the honorees asked Peralta to show up for support.
Given an opportunity to “say a few words,” Peralta congratulated the women for their awards and discussed issues about LaGuardia Airport, the elections changes at LeFrak City and the IDC.
“For me, my relationship is with my voters,” he said. “If my voters are going to be in a room, that’s where I’m at.”