Even as political observers predict a “blue wave” of Democratic victories in 2018 based on this year’s results and President Trump’s low approval ratings, New York political activists are gearing up to try to make an impact on state races next year. While Governor Andrew Cuomo is promising to lead the charge against the state’s Republican members of the House, newly energized progressive activists are making a concerted effort to bring down the Independent Democratic Conference, the breakaway group of eight Democratic state senators who in recent years have collaborated with Republicans to give the GOP control of the state senate despite the Democrats’ 32-31 numerical advantage.
While the IDC members have pointed to their progressive achievements — like the rise in New York’s minimum wage and a partial reform of the state’s criminal culpability age — which they say are due to having a seat at the table because of their power-sharing agreement, they are widely blamed for failure or inaction on progressive legislation like the DREAM Act, the New York Health Act, and the Reproductive Health Act, which are unable to make it out of Republican-controlled committees.
Earlier this month, it looked like the fight to break the IDC would get sidelined thanks to a reconciliation deal brokered by allies of Cuomo that would have brought the IDC into an alliance with the mainline Democratic conference, in exchange for the larger Democratic apparatus agreeing to not officially support any primary challenges against IDC members. That deal, though, is contingent on a number of factors like the Democrats winning a pair of special elections in 2018. And in any case, potential primary challengers say that while they don’t have great confidence in the deal holding, losing official party backing wouldn’t stop them from trying to unseat IDC members.
One potential IDC challenger sounds like someone getting ready to run for office. Jessica Ramos, a former press flack for Mayor Bill de Blasio, left her position at City Hall last month, though she wouldn’t confirm what exactly she had planned next. But in a conversation with the Voice, Ramos (who’s filed paperwork to run) gave every indication that she will officially announce a primary campaign against Queens senator Jose Peralta early next year.
Ramos says that while Peralta’s IDC defection earlier this year was part of her inspiration to run against him, she also feels like she can be a better voice for Queens’s District 13, which primarily covers East Elmhurst, Corona, and Jackson Heights. “Aside from joining the IDC, [Jose Peralta] has a poor and lazy legislative record,” Ramos says, dismissing the nine Peralta-sponsored bills that have passed the legislature in the past seven years as having borne little fruit for the district. Most glaringly, he has not been able to get the DREAM Act through the chamber as either a mainline Democrat or an IDC member.
As another senator aligned with the mainline Democratic conference, Ramos hopes to work toward an end to the Urstadt Law (which prevents New York City from instituting its own rent stabilization laws) and reform for the way major capital improvements are calculated in increasingly imperiled rent-stabilized apartments. (The IDC has been a favorite recipient of real estate money.) While running against an incumbent with a history in the area dating back to a stint in the state assembly from 2002 to 2010 could be daunting, Peralta was kicked out of a local Democratic club for his defection to the IDC and has had to face down (and duck) constituents who wanted to confront him on the move.
Even with the possible reconciliation deal hanging over her candidacy, Ramos seems unfazed. “We’ve seen this play out before,” Ramos tells the Voice, referring to an aborted 2014 attempt at a compromise that broke down when IDC founder Jeff Klein chose to keep his breakaway group in the GOP corner. And unlike in 2014, Ramos can now count on an angry base of voters who have already vociferously rejected the latest deal and pledged to support candidates who primary IDC members.
On the other hand, Ramos is looking at a three-way race at the moment, with East Elmhurst seventeen-year-old (and Crain’s 20 under 20 honoree) Tahseen Chowdhury having already announced his intention to run against Peralta earlier this year.
As it happens, a three-way primary race is what allowed another IDC member, Marisol Alcantara, to get into office in 2016. This time around, the state senator who the Voice’s own Ross Barkan described as “the most vulnerable fence-sitting Democrat in Albany” looks to be facing a coordinated attack from both men she defeated last year: Former city councilmember Robert Jackson announced earlier this year that he would run again for the seat, which stretches from Chelsea to Inwood, while the third man in that race, Micah Lasher, is on record as supporting Jackson in 2018. Jackson tells the Voice he would focus on fighting for the billions of dollars owed to New York City schools under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit against the state, which Jackson was an original plaintiff in.
Still, Jackson faces an uphill battle: While the entire New York Democratic congressional delegation signed a letter asking the IDC to return to the mainline Democratic alignment, Alcantara is allied with Representative Adriano Espaillat, who at two different town halls this year defended Alcantara’s alignment with the conference and called her “the most progressive member of the state senate.” Even if the reconciliation deal were to collapse — Jackson calls it “as fragile as [if] you were trying to build a little miniature house out of toothpicks” — it may be choppy waters ahead for the former councilmember if he takes on a favorite of a local power broker.
Local activists with no government experience are jumping in the ring as well in a couple of districts represented by IDC members. In District 20, which stretches from Brownsville to Crown Heights and Prospect–Lefferts Gardens, Prospect–Lefferts local and attorney Zellnor Myrie has announced he’ll be taking on State Senator Jesse Hamilton. At a fundraiser last weekend, Myrie called for the election of Democrats like himself who would “pass the most progressive affordable housing program not just here in New York, but in the entire county,” one that rested on the idea of “100 percent affordable housing.” He also called for a “top-to-bottom reform” of New York’s criminal justice system, which he previously told Gothamist included measures like the end to cash bail and speedy trial reform.
Myrie tells the Voice he sees the reconciliation deal as just another opening to hammer Hamilton. “How can you say you joined the IDC to move the Republican Party to the left and then say you’re coming back to the Democrats?” Myrie asks. “Were you lying then or are you lying now?”
As with Peralta, Hamilton’s district could be ripe for activating disgruntled voters. This year’s primary for the Flatbush/Prospect–Lefferts Garden City Council seat held by Mathieu Eugene saw the incumbent pick up a plurality but not a majority in a four-person race, and his general election opponent on the Reform Party line, Brian Cunningham, was endorsed by the Working Families Party. On the other hand, Hamilton has a friend in Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who handpicked him as his replacement in the state senate and declared his 2014 victory proof of “who the real kingmaker in Brooklyn” was.
In the Bronx, attorney and activist Lewis Kaminski has filed paperwork to run against Klein, the IDC’s leader. Like the other anti-IDC candidates who’ve declared their intent to run, Kaminski thinks his presence in the state senate instead of Klein’s can get bills like the DREAM Act and the Reproductive Health Act to the floor and up for a vote. However, Kamsinki is facing an uphill battle to represent the 34th District as a relative unknown against an experienced political operator with almost $2 million in his campaign war chest and a huge list of local improvements he can point to thanks to more than $11 million in earmarks over the last three years. Klein also won a previous primary challenge in 2014 by 34 points.
Kaminski tells the Voice he thinks he can tap into voter anger about the IDC in an age when the federal government has been captured by plutocrats and progressive grassroots activism is focusing more on the state than the federal level. And while Klein originally said he started the IDC as a way to free himself and other state senators from Albany dysfunction and royal intrigue, Kaminski is now running on a kind of mirror image of that idea.
“We’ve had representation that’s been about Albany dysfunction and backroom dealing for so long,” says Kaminski. “People are looking for someone to go up there and represent their values instead of just cut deals.”