News & Politics

Meet the Most Vulnerable Fence-Sitting Democrat in Albany

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When Marisol Alcantara first ran for an open State Senate seat in Manhattan last year, her campaign looked like an extension of the Bernie Sanders revolution.

A delegate for the Vermont socialist, Alcantara was a union organizer with unabashedly progressive views. She sought to become the only Latina in the upper chamber, a voice for immigrants and the disenfranchised. She also openly aligned herself with the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway bloc of Democrats who have backed liberal legislation while propping up a conservative Republican majority.

Now, like State Senator Jose Peralta in Queens, she may begin to face the furious wrath of her constituents for joining the IDC.

Peralta’s defection to the IDC a couple of weeks ago was a remarkable event. The insular political machinations of Albany rarely interest anyone beyond journalists, political operatives, lobbyists, good government groups, and the occasional close watchers of the political scene, usually former members of one of the aforementioned cabals. This has been to the IDC’s benefit: most liberal Democratic voters, particularly in the five boroughs, have been too wrapped up in the national scene to care about their own backyard, and peculiar alliances between beleaguered Republicans and rogue Democrats go unnoticed.

Something has changed. Hundreds packed a town hall in Jackson Heights on Friday to heckle Peralta and promise to throw him out of office. Terrified by Donald Trump’s new and already ludicrous presidency, they finally turned their attention to the eight Democrats in Albany who have remained in a power-sharing agreement with the GOP, even as the Republican majority leader praises Trump and celebrates his disastrous new education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

Trump’s election has reinvigorated and unified many on the left, forcing them to pay heed to the institutions they once took for granted. Like voters in the 1960’s who decided local elections on which Democrats supported the Vietnam War and which marched in the streets, accommodation of Trump and his allies has become the new litmus test: you’re either with the resistance, or you aren’t.

Peralta, sitting in a very liberal central Queens district, is playing with fire, but he is not the most vulnerable of the eight IDC members. As a longtime incumbent with a record in his district, the odds are still in his favor.

Alcantara is a different story.

Triumphing in a four-way Democratic primary last September, Alcantara captured about 33 percent of the vote. Her top two challengers, Micah Lasher and Robert Jackson, each cleared 30 percent. The district, formerly represented by now-Congressman Adriano Espaillat, snakes up Manhattan’s West Side, taking in a sliver of Chelsea, a much larger chunk of the Upper West Side, and the predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill.

The racial and ethnic divisions that played to Alcantara’s advantage in a crowded Democratic primary could be her undoing. Excluding the possibility of an anti-Trump surge, Alcantara’s re-election was never going to be easy. She relied heavily on turnout from the district’s Dominican-American community (like Espaillat, she is from the Dominican Republic) and pulled far less from the area’s sizable white and black constituencies. Democratic insiders believe a single candidate unifying Lasher and Jackson’s votes could make Alcantara a one-term senator.

Jackson, a former city councilman who has ran for the seat twice before, said through a spokesman he is considering a third campaign. Lasher and Jackson, who both oppose the IDC, have already agreed that only one of them should challenge the incumbent next year.

Alcantara, who relied on six-figure expenditures from the IDC’s campaign committee to win her primary, has been a useful weapon for the breakaway conference so far. The Senate’s only Latina, and one of three nonwhites in the IDC, she has accused Peralta’s critics of being racist for attacking a minority lawmaker. (By joining the majority, Peralta will be entitled to a larger staff budget and the possibility of chairing a committee in the future—along with the stipend that comes with such a perk.)

“Too often when legislators of color make decisions based on helping their constituents, they are demonized and accused of having a financial motivation,” Alcantara said in a statement to the Voice. “That’s what’s happening here, and it’s racist.”

Alcantara’s critique is self-serving and disingenuous, and it’s possible Democrats in her own district will see through it. Primary challenges to IDC members aren’t new, and the two that successfully faced them down are white: State Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx and Tony Avella of Queens each fended off primaries in 2014.

The Democrats who challenged them had a reason to be furious. A year earlier, there were enough Democrats to form a clear majority to ram through much of the legislation the IDC has enacted or supports, like a robust minimum wage hike, statewide paid family leave and the DREAM Act. But the IDC’s leader, Jeff Klein, chose an alliance with the GOP instead, which served the aims of New York’s centrist governor, Andrew Cuomo.

A vast majority of State Senate Republicans represent districts outside of New York City. They are, with few exceptions, hostile to the city’s interests, which means they have little incentive to help the working class and poor of the five boroughs, many of them black and Latino like Alcantara’s constituents.

Senate Republicans, thanks to millions in donations from the real estate industry and hedge funders, support eviscerating rent regulations and tenant protections. They do not want to tax the rich; they want the rich to take whatever they can, and hope the hoi polloi are happy with scraps. They mostly drive cars, so don’t expect any help with a state-controlled subway system they know little about. Their constituents are white, so discriminatory policing means nothing to them.

For all the progressive accomplishments Klein’s conference touts, these fundamental facts are inescapable. The Republican Party controls every branch of the federal government, and has maintained a virtually uninterrupted stranglehold on New York’s Senate for a half century, thanks to gerrymandering and Democratic collusion. Now that Trump is the party’s leader, New Yorkers are discovering a reality they’ve ignored for too long.

For the leading liberal politicians who have tolerated or even boosted IDC candidates — Public Advocate Letitia James, Councilman Ritchie Torres and even Mayor Bill de Blasio come to mind — they will be forced to answer new questions from people finally learning to ask them. Local democracy may, at last, live up to its promise.

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