At a town hall meeting in Jackson Heights, Queens last night, a standing room only crowd, along with scores of chanting demonstrators outside the event, challenged state Senator Jose Peralta to explain his surprise decision to join the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of eight Democrats who have defected from the Democratic Party in order to form a power-sharing agreement with Republicans.
Several attendees said they felt betrayed by Peralta’s sudden desertion, which helps Republicans maintain power in the senate, after he campaigned on a progressive platform and won District 13, covering Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Corona, with nearly 87% of the vote in November.
“He did this on the down low,” Lisa Jenkins, a reverend who has lived in East Elmhurst for more than fifty years told Gothamist. “He’s betrayed us and he needs to show some kind of remorse for going behind our backs.”
Jenkins confronted Peralta during the question-and-answer phase of the meeting and demanded he commit to future town halls so that the protestors outside - barred by space limitations inside the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights - could participate. Like many other attendees, she said she was disappointed that Peralta did not discuss his plan to join the IDC with constituents before the decision was made public.
A chorus of “No IDC” chants from the protestors outside penetrated the meeting from the outset as Peralta explained that he joined the IDC to influence Republicans and champion progressive issues like gun control, women’s health care and climate change legislation.
“I can push things forward and I can slow things down,” he said. “Without this agreement, there’s no way that anything could pass.”
After attendees demanded to know what he and the IDC had to give Republicans in return, Peralta said the IDC provided cover for Republicans reluctant to upset their base over property tax increases.
Daniel Shin, a City attorney and lifelong Queens resident, told Gothamist he questioned the political calculations that motivated Peralta’s decision.
“This was a bait and switch,” Shin said. “We elected him as a Democrat and we expected him to work together with the other Democrats, but now he has decided to collaborate with the Republicans who stand for so many things that are antithetical to what we all in this community believe in.”
After Peralta blamed Democratic leadership in the State Senate for not accomplishing liberal reforms, Shin reminded Peralta that he was the Minority Whip before switching his allegiance to the IDC.
Earlier, audience members jeered as Peralta lectured on the ineffectiveness of progressive Senate Democrats over the last decade and frequently blamed rogue Brooklyn Democrat Simcha Felder, who typically votes with Republicans, for the fissure in the party. A man standing to the side of the senator suggested Peralta focus on 2017 and consider the power of an energized Democratic base, as evidenced by the event attendees who he said were eager to resist regressive lawmakers.
A woman in the back of the room held a sign that read “Where the REAL Democrats at?” and interrupted Peralta to chastise him for unfulfilled funding for public schools. Later, another woman stood in the aisle in the middle of the room and said Peralta’s staff deliberately did not publicize the event to limit dissent.
Pressed by attendees on whether he would reverse his departure from the Democrats if the party reclaimed more seats in the 2018 election, Peralta said he pledged to continue working with “mainline” Democrats and to rejoin the party conference if they win seats in Long Island and Upstate New York.
“I am committing myself to making sure we bring the party under one umbrella,” Peralta said before pledging that the Senate is “going to pass the DREAM Act.”
The crowd applauded when one attendee asked why Peralta did not form a progressive caucus instead of colluding with Republicans.
“The progressive caucus is the Independent Democrats,” he said, to which many in the crowd booed.
Other attendees, including those who arrived early for the event and offered testimonies about Peralta’s work on their behalf, said they admired Peralta’s courage and would keep an open mind as he worked more closely with Republicans.
“I think it’s a good idea to have some options,” said Peter Bahr, president of the South Asian Democratic Club and a naturalized citizen from Bangladesh. “This IDC idea should have come earlier because the Democrats and Jose Peralta have to work with the Republicans. It’s not a good idea to have enemies.”