Unseating an incumbent elected official is close to impossible. Many well-intentioned people have tried and most have failed. But in one central Queens State Senate district, there are the rumblings of a movement, part establishment and part grassroots, to throw one out of office next year.
The unlucky target is State Senator Jose Peralta, who defected from the Senate Democratic Conference last week to become the eighth member of the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway faction of Democrats who are allied with Senate Republicans. As they have for most of the past half century, Republicans control the Senate in deep blue New York, and it appears that in the wake of President Donald Trump’s daily circus of woe, more and more people are fed up with that reality.
“In these times when we’re fighting the Republican agenda, we don’t need our local representatives allying with Republicans at the state level,” said Susan Kang, a Jackson Heights resident and professor of political science at John Jay College who, among a growing number, are disgusted with Peralta’s decision.
“I assumed he was pretty good, in terms of being a progressive Democrat,” Kang added. “I didn’t really see why he had to do that. It was pretty disappointing.”
Peralta’s jump to the IDC provoked outrage on multiple levels. Unlike the core members of the breakaway conference, Peralta represents a Jackson Heights and Corona-based district largely devoid of Republicans and conservative Democrats.
For those on the left who closely follow state politics, the IDC has long been a source of frustration. Founded in 2011 by State Senator Jeff Klein, the conference originally numbered four, and broke off from the regular Democrats following a two-year period of chaos when Democrats, for a brief time, controlled the upper chamber. Klein’s IDC, nurtured by Governor Andrew Cuomo, was mostly an afterthought until 2013, when Democrats found themselves in position, with Klein’s help, to sit in the majority again. Instead, the IDC partnered with Senate Republicans to keep the Democrats in the minority, guaranteeing only some liberal legislation would see the light of day.
By forming a third conference, Klein has significantly increased his own clout while bolstering the staff budgets and standing of his allies. Most members of the IDC chair or vice chair committees. When Cuomo meets with the Assembly speaker and Republican majority leader to hash out the state budget, Klein is guaranteed a seat in the room.
Jackson Heights, home to a burgeoning bloc of progressive, affluent Democrats, is bound to give Peralta trouble. Jackson Heights Life, the local listserv, exploded after residents learned of Peralta’s decision by reading the news. Kang and other residents demanded a town hall from Peralta dedicated solely to addressing his decision to join the IDC; after resisting, Peralta agreed to a town hall this Friday where he will be taking questions on his defection, among other topics.
Kang said they are hoping that a Democrat emerges to punish Peralta in next year’s election.
The more dangerous enemy Peralta has made, however, is the Queens Democratic Party. Its chairman, Representative Joe Crowley, sits in a district that overlaps with Peralta’s, and Crowley is close to State Senator Michael Gianaris, the Queens Democrat who leads the conference’s fundraising arm. Peralta won his seat against the scandal-scarred Hiram Monserrate with the help of Crowley’s machine, and Peralta was once known to be close to the county organization.
A Queens Democratic source told the Voice that Crowley is actively hunting for challengers to take Peralta on. He may find himself in league with the Working Families Party, a liberal third party which previously endorsed Peralta and despises the IDC. The WFP and Crowley have warred plenty in the past, but now they have a common enemy.
For Crowley, boosting primary challenges to sitting legislators is nothing new: after Queens State Senator Tony Avella defected to the IDC in 2014, Crowley backed former Comptroller John Liu in a failed attempt to unseat Avella.
Peralta has argued he joined the IDC because he wanted to pass more bills and leave behind a conference of “failed” leadership, even if the Post reported that there were financial incentives at play. “Under this political landscape, I cannot, and will not, sit on the sidelines,” Peralta said in a statement. “For me, this is a time of action, and serving and advocating for my community and New York is and will always be my primary concern.”
For years, the IDC has benefitted from a voting public who didn’t really know who they were or care. As long as Democratic voters saw IDC members appearing as Democrats on the ballot, they cast their votes and moved on. But with Republicans in control of the White House, Congress and a majority of American statehouses, the IDC’s rubric for staying power suddenly seems far more dubious.
The question always remains: Will enough voters —even in the age of Trump — care?