More than two years before a Brooklyn state senator named Jesse Hamilton defected to a conference of breakaway Democrats now infuriating rank-and-file progressives, one of their co-founders considered the move a fait accompli.
“Jesse Hamilton was successful in Brooklyn and Jesse Hamilton will be a member of the IDC,” State Senator Diane Savino predicted at Hamilton’s election night party in September of 2014.
The startling claim, made just after Hamilton triumphed in a Democratic primary, was largely forgotten until he defected from the mainline Democrats last November, bolstering an Independent Democratic Conference that would, by 2017, grow to eight members. Savino, perhaps the IDC’s boldest and brashest defender, was proven correct. The IDC, which has an indefinite power-sharing agreement with the Senate Republican majority, had won again.
But Hamilton, along with two new members of the IDC, made the mistake of joining the conference in the age of President Donald Trump, when New York Democrats are rightfully desperate for novel and meaningful ways to resist Republican incursions. Queens State Senator Jose Peralta, who joined the IDC just last month, was repeatedly heckled at a raucous town hall and is all but guaranteed a primary challenge. Manhattan State Senator Marisol Alcantara, if not yet the target of the type of wrath Peralta endured in Queens, could struggle against a single, strong primary challenge.
Now Hamilton may get the Peralta treatment.
“He’d rather work with the party of Trump than keep tenants in their homes,” said Katie Goldstein, a leader of the Alliance for Tenant Power, a coalition of city tenant advocates. “It’s really a slap in the face.”
Like Alcantara, Hamilton represents a largely nonwhite district with a significant stock of rent-regulated apartments. State Senator Jeff Klein, the Bronx lawmaker who leads the IDC, has long been a source of frustration for tenant advocates, partnering with Senate Republicans to block any repeal of so-called vacancy bonuses.
Goldstein promises tenant advocates will join the growing protests against the IDC. Protesters had planned to crash Hamilton’s Park Slope fundraiser tonight before a snowstorm canceled it.
Tomorrow, Hamilton will hold an event at 1 p.m., a curious time that may be designed to avoid the kind of toxic reception Peralta received last week. Still, according to at least one Facebook event, nearly a hundred people are planning to protest Hamilton’s defection outside his office.
The Brooklyn state senator has been defiant so far, accusing the burgeoning IDC opposition of racism and bigotry. “When someone uses racist or sexist slurs to indicate their political disagreement, I think it is fair to call that out as racist, sexist, or bigoted and say that myself and my colleagues won’t be bullied or intimidated by that,” Hamilton said in a statement to the Voice. “Those people who do seek a constructive discussion are welcome—the trolls and the bullies are not.” (It’s entirely unclear what specific “slurs” Hamilton is referring to. We asked for clarification and will update if he responds.)
Alcantara, the only Latina in the Senate, has wielded similar rhetoric against the opposition. Hamilton, though, is the IDC’s only black member and the conference is still majority white; until the recent defections, it was entirely white. Klein, the IDC leader, is a white man who long aspired to be the Democratic majority leader but always found himself blocked by black lawmakers the Democrats elevated instead. Savino, who is also white, even suggested the IDC would align with the mainline Democrats if they only they dumped their black, female leader (the only black female to ever lead a conference in New York State history) for Klein.
Undoubtedly, there are white progressives who hate the IDC. Hamilton would like to believe the uprising against a conference that has propped up an all-white Senate Republican majority—one composed chiefly of suburban and rural lawmakers who do the bidding of the real estate industry and hedge funders—is attacking only minority lawmakers now enjoying new perks. But any honest scrutiny of this critique reveals it to be misleading and baseless.
The Working Families Party, which endorsed Hamilton last year, is hunting for a challenger. While plenty of whites work with the WFP, their membership unions are diverse—one of their most crucial, the New York State Nurses Association, is minority-heavy.
“We’re deeply, deeply concerned about any Democrat who chooses to prop up Republican control during this moment in our nation’s history,” said Bill Lipton, WFP’s New York director.
Defeating Hamilton will not be easy. Unlike Peralta, he enjoys the tacit support of the Brooklyn Democratic Party and remains an ally of Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who held the central Brooklyn seat before Hamilton. (Adams didn’t return a request for comment, though he has been intermittently critical and tolerant of the IDC.) As a former district leader, Hamilton has forged long-lasting alliances in the community and will enjoy the largesse of the IDC’s campaign committee as he fends off a challenger.
But the loud opposition to all things IDC has probably accomplished one of its goals already: stopping the bleeding. Democrats, particularly those from liberal districts, will need to think twice before defecting to the breakaway conference.
UPDATE: Hamilton’s office maintains the event previously described as a town hall is not a town hall. It is a Valentines Day event for seniors, one of several in the district scheduled for Friday. Protesters plan to demonstrate outside his office, not at any event Hamilton is holding tomorrow.