The Jewish Center of Jackson Heights was overflowing with approximately 200 Queens residents on Monday night for a town hall organized by Citizens of District 13, who wanted answers from Senator Jose Peralta, a Democrat who announced in February that he would be joining the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC).
The senator, who represents Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Corona and parts of Astoria, told constituents in February that he would meet with them again to explain his move to the IDC. When the senator did not schedule another town hall, Citizens of District 13 and other grassroots organizations decided to hold their own and invited Peralta. The senator did not respond to their invitation, organizers said.
The town hall, titled “Where is Peralta?” featured panelists from a number of organizations that covered topics such as education funding, criminal justice reform, immigrants’ rights and healthcare reform at the state level.
Attendees also got an overview of the IDC. Lisa DellAquila from True Blue NY, a citizen activist group pushing for progressive legislation in New York, explained the origins of the eight-member coalition of “pragmatic progressive posers” that “empower GOP control of the State Senate.”
Though Democrats make up the majority of the State Senate — they have 32 members, while Republicans have 31 — the eight-member coalition and Brooklyn Democrat Simcha Felder, who is not part of the IDC but caucuses with Republicans, puts the number of mainline Democrats in the State Senate at 23.
Other speakers, including Blanca Villanueva of Alliance for Quality Education, Mazeda Uddin of the South Asian Fund for Education, Erin George of JustLeadershipUSA, Kenneth Shelton of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York and Martha Livingston of Physicians for a National Health Plan NY, spoke about how progressive legislation was stalled due to the IDC.
Bills like the DREAM Act, Child Victim’s Act, New York Health Act, Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act and the Climate and Community Protection Act passed in the left-leaning Assembly but were stalled in the State Senate.
In addition to speaking about policies on a statewide level, panelists spoke about policy issues in District 13.
According to Villanueva, District 13 is owed $39,231,138 million in Foundation Aid for public schools. In 2006, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v State of New York court ruling found that city public schools were underfunded and ruled that Albany pay $5.6 billion in operating aid or what is called Foundation Aid. But as of this year, $4.3 billion has still not been allocated to city schools.
Peralta’s constituents held a rally in front of his office in March to protest the IDC’s proposed budget, which included $906.3 million in Foundation Aid during the 2017-18 school year. The Senate Democrats’ budget, which did not make it to the floor, supported a “fully phased-in Foundation Aid Formula over the next three years” with a $2.1 billion increase for the 2017-18 school year.
Ultimately, the state budget included $1 billion in school funding with $700 million of that funding dedicated to Foundation Aid.
Paula Avila-Guillen, an Astoria resident in Peralta’s district, said she felt “betrayed” by the senator when he announced his move to the IDC.
“I believe that everything the IDC is doing is sending a very clear message, also to the federal government [about] where they stand,” she said. “As a Latina and him being a Latino, I just feel very betrayed about not only the policies that [the IDC] represent, but it’s also a symbolic message. They’re saying they agree with [federal] policies, that they agree with the federal administration and they’re not willing to take a stand [for] what is right.”
She added that constituents now need to raise money to make sure Peralta is primaried.
Peralta attended the Ericsson Block Association Meeting in East Elmhurst instead of the town hall to talk about recently passed legislation and “successes in the state budget.”
“Unfortunately, ‘Citizens for District 13′ — a group that my office has never heard of in the many years of dealing with community organizations — appears more focused on furthering a counterproductive anti-Independent Democratic Conference agenda than taking any action that has to do with a healthy and constructive debate about the future of this district,” he said in a statement.” While some seek to politically grandstand by promoting rallies and town halls, I am busy protecting immigrant tenants from heartless landlords, and making sure New Yorkers are protected from lead paint chips falling onto the streets and sidewalks from elevated subway tracks.”
Peralta also listed funding he has brought to District 13 with the recent budget like funding for public schools, legal representation for immigrants and the recent Excelsior Scholarship that provides tuition-free state and city college.
“However, and as always, I look forward to having an ongoing healthy and constructive debate on all the matters that we all hold dear to our hearts,” Peralta added.
Aisha Gomez, a LeFrak City resident and community organizer who helped organize the town hall, said she would have liked to see the senator attend the meeting and listen to constituents’ concerns.
“We want him to listen to us and take our concerns seriously and also to get the majority back in the [Senate], but if he doesn’t want to come back, we are very ready to primary against him,” she said. “We voted for a Democrat and he kind of bamboozled us because if you see he didn’t run on the IDC platform … and in a time when we need more unity than ever in our State Senate we cannot turn a blind eye to that.”