You almost felt sorry for Jose Peralta, the Queens state senator attempting a town hall at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center on Friday night. In his salmon-colored tie and crisp blue suit, his face still babyish and his hair flecked a distinguished gray, he was clearly used to playing the role of harmless public servant. As the eighth and newest member of the Independent Democratic Conference, he probably imagined his defection from the mainline Democrats would follow a familiar script: a few complaints from his colleagues, a snippy quote in the press, and then everyone moves on.
But Peralta learned that 2017 is nothing like 2016, when Donald Trump evolved from SNL punchline to ludicrous nominee to 45th president of the United States. Peralta was booed seconds after speaking into his microphone. His own constituents, jamming the room, shouted him down repeatedly, promising to vote him out of office. Behind a police barricade outside, the people barred from entering — the Jewish center quickly hit its crowd capacity — cried “traitor” and “No IDC,” hoping their senator would eventually walk their way. He never did.
One woman inside the center, a political newcomer who voted for Peralta, said she was “devastated” by his decision last week to join the IDC and told reporters afterward she was considering running against him.
“I can’t sit by and let the Democrats not represent us anymore,” said Leeanne G-Bowley, the Elmhurst woman mulling the campaign. “People are scared and we’re ready to fight and we were hoping we didn’t have to fight our own elected officials who are in our party. But it looks like we have to do that as well as fight the Trump administration.”
In one pocket of Queens, residents have figured out that punishing Peralta for joining a breakaway conference empowering Senate Republicans is the most practical way to channel their rage. They first bombarded Peralta with phone calls, demanding a public meeting to explain his decision. He eventually relented, though the notice was not posted anywhere in the neighborhoods, according to residents. Instead, through word of mouth and social media — and through a suddenly explosive neighborhood listserv — residents flocked to Jackson Heights to rail against the IDC.
Formed in 2011, the IDC has grown from four members to eight, thanks to three defections over the past few months. Two members of the IDC, Diane Savino and Jesse Hamilton, showed up to bolster Peralta on Friday.
Hamilton, a new addition last year who could face a primary of his own, bolted long before the town hall was over, likely queasy from the scene.
Peralta begged his furious audience to keep an “open mind.” He talked about the “drama” and “dysfunction” of the Senate Democrats, pointing to the chaotic two-year period, in 2009 and 2010, when they briefly were in the majority. The IDC, he said, could form an effective bulwark against the Trump administration, even in alliance with a suburban and upstate-based GOP conference that, for the most part, reveres the xenophobic strongman. He argued the IDC could force Republicans to vote on liberal legislation.
“I waited. I looked at it and said, ‘What’s this all about?’” Peralta recalled. “I saw results.”
But his constituents weren’t buying what he was selling. “It’s 2017! Trump was elected!” one man shouted to underscore the point that grudges from 2009 meant nothing now. Pouring over “fact sheets” distributing by the burgeoning opposition, they were well-armed for Albany-speak.
They learned that in 2013, there were enough Democrats to form a majority in the Senate, a bloc ready to pass much of the legislation, like a minimum wage hike and a paid family leave program, that the IDC now takes credit for. Instead, the IDC brokered an unprecedented alliance with the Republicans, offering them the majority as long as Klein could share in the perks: a seat at the table for budget negotiations, power to block bills from coming up for a vote, committee chairmanships for his conference, and fatter staff budgets.
This year, there are enough Democrats, again, to form a majority, though the math is fuzzier. One conservative Democrat, Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, caucuses with the GOP, though he has said he would return to the fold if the IDC goes first. That isn’t happening. It doesn’t help regular Democrats that Governor Andrew Cuomo, an unreconstructed triangulator at heart, likes the breakaway conference, and rarely bothers to help Democrats.
The advantage state lawmakers have always held over the rest of the political class is their relative obscurity. Newspapers don’t usually care about what they have to say. They aren’t hounded by the press like the mayor. Their machinations occur in a distant state capitol alien to most in the five boroughs; the lack of term limits confers a kind of tin pot immortality. There are state assemblymen who remember when John Lindsay was mayor and Trump was Fred’s impudent little boy.
Now that time has passed. There’s plenty of rage leftover for the allies of Trump, not just the orange-haired authoritarian himself. Democrats who empower, let alone play nice with, the party of Trump will feel the full wrath of the people who are angry and terrified by this presidency.
“At one point they were the party of George Bush, right? I mean, Republicans are Republicans. We don’t expect them to be Democrats,” Savino told the Voice, dismissing much of the criticism hurled her conference’s way. “There’s no sense in just sitting in the minority, on the sidelines. The IDC is a permanent third conference, whether you like it or not.”
Judging from the rancor in the room on Friday, “not” was winning out.
“Right now the community is extremely upset,” said Rev. Lisa Jenkins, an East Elmhurst resident who leads a church in Harlem. “People are now starting to get their voice. Some of us have been at this for years. Now people are starting to understand the power they really have.”
With additional reporting from Stephen Miller.