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Photo by Angela Matua/QNS
State Senator Jose Peralta speaks about his re-election campaign.

State Senator Jose Peralta is up for re-election this year and is hoping his constituents, whom he calls his “extended family,” vote him in for a fifth term in office.

Representing the 13th Senatorial District, Peralta’s district encompasses Jackson Heights, Corona, East Elmhurst and parts of Astoria and Woodside. After seven years as a member of the mainline Democrats, Peralta announced last January that he would join the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC).

His switch to the IDC angered some constituents, and Peralta’s political opponents argue that he doesn’t deserve another term after making the switch.

Democrats make up the majority of the state Senate — they have 32 members, while Republicans have 31. But while it would seem that Democrats outnumber the GOP, the Senate is complicated by another factor: the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC).

The IDC, founded in 2011, is a group of Democratic state senators who form a majority coalition with Republicans. Subtracting those eight members and state Senator Simcha Felder, a Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, puts the number of mainline Democrats in the state Senate at 23.

With two recent Democratic senator departures, the number of mainline Democrats is now at 21. Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for special elections on April 24, which is expected to shift the balance back to 23 mainline Democrats in the coming months.

In June 2017, approximately 200 Queens residents attended a town hall in Jackson Heights to discuss the senator’s defection to the conference and criticized his move, which came a few days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Paula Avila-Guillen, an Astoria resident in Peralta’s district, said at the town hall that 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.”

His challengers, Jessica Ramos and Andrea Marra, have made his IDC membership a core part of their platforms and have sharply criticized him for it, referring to him as a “turncoat Democrat.”

“One year ago today, politics in our district changed forever,” Ramos said in a press conference on Jan. 25. “One year ago today, the bigot in the White House announced the travel ban on Muslim majority countries targeting our fellow Queens residents and making them feel unsafe. That same day, our state senator who calls himself a Democrat joined the conference that concedes control of our Senate to the Republicans.”

But, in an interview with QNS, Peralta defended his move, pointing to legislation supported by the IDC that has been passed. The state Legislature raised the minimum wage, passed paid family leave, raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 (New York was one of two states that charged 16- and 17-year-olds as adults), established a legal defense fund for immigrants and created the Excelsior Scholarship, which makes state and city college tuition free for certain students.

He argued that a Democratic majority would not necessarily lead to the passage of more progressive legislation and recounted his experience with trying to pass the DREAM Act in 2014 as an example.

“I’m with the mainline Democrats and I want to bring the DREAM Act onto the floor,” he said. “I’m literally told by my leadership, ‘You cannot do so.’ And, of course, I ask why. [I was told], ‘It’s going to hurt the marginals in Long Island.’ Wait a second — I thought we were the Democratic Party and that we stand for this issue?”

He said IDC leader Jeff Klein convinced him to bring it to the floor. The legislation failed by one vote when Democratic state Senator Tedd O’Brien, who originally told Peralta he would vote for the DREAM Act, decided to vote against it. Felder also voted no.

“One of the most progressive items on the table failed because Democrats did not want it to happen, and that’s an unfortunate piece of this,” he said. “I get the ideology and assumption that if they’re all Democrats they all have to vote the same way and they’re all going to be progressive. No, they’re not.”

But Peralta also said he thinks a reunification plan is “very likely.” Governor Andrew Cuomo last year presented a plan to reunify the IDC and mainline Democrats and both leaders — IDC leader Jeff Klein and Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stuart-Cousins — have agreed to it.

The plan would make both Klein and Stuart-Cousins co-leaders and each would have a chance to decide the agenda and bring legislation to the floor. In return, Democrats would not actively seek to run primary challengers against the IDC members.

This version of the plan is different than the plan floated in 2014, Peralta argued, because “You didn’t have both sides publicly say, ‘Yes, we’re going to do it.’ There’s a mechanism in place to hold people accountable.”

Cuomo, Congressman Joseph Crowley, who is the chair of the House Democratic Caucus and Héctor Figueroa, the president of progressive labor union 32BJ, have all approved the proposal.

It is not clear how effective a co-leader system would ultimately be, but Peralta argued that “we should just give it a shot.”

If elected to a fifth term, the first Dominican-American to win a state Senate seat said he will focus on three main issues: education, immigration and housing.

Peralta’s neighborhoods feature some of the most overcrowded schools in the city, and funding enough school seats to keep up with the influx of new students has been a struggle. The state senator said he will “continue the legacy” of bringing “results” in the form of new schools and more seats.

“We’ve been able to bring up to 12 new schools and a little bit more than 6,500 seats because my school district is one of the heaviest over-crowded school districts,” he said. “The fact that we need so many seats, and on top of that it’s still not enough, makes me work even harder so that we can protect my extended family.”

In District 13, 59.2 percent of the population is foreign-born with 69 percent of foreign-born residents born in Latin America and 23 percent of foreign-born residents born in Asia. The national discussion surrounding immigration has made the role of state government even more important, he said.

“I am ground zero for immigrants,” Peralta said. “I represent the United Nations of districts.”

Peralta, the sponsor of the DREAM Act, which has been passed by the Assembly several times but not the state Senate, said he will make another push to pass the legislation. He is hoping to garner support from the Democratic candidates expected to win the April special election and said he has support from two Republican senators as well.

He also touted his proposal to change the property tax circuit breaker, which was established over 30 years ago to cover the portion of a homeowners tax bill surpassing a reasonable share of their household income.

Peralta said his years of experience within the state system will allow him to keep achieving results for his constituents.

“We’re rolling up our sleeves day in and day out to provide services to my constituents,” he said. “Now more than ever we have to ensure we put people over politics. There’s a lot of rhetoric and people want to talk about all these promises, but it’s really about rolling up your sleeves. It’s about who’s been there year after year after year after year delivering, fighting the fight even though you know there have been some defeats.”

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