A few days before the spring semester at CUNY started, I woke up to surprising news: my state senator, Jose Peralta, left the mainline Democratic caucus at the New York State Senate and formally joined the Independent Democratic Conference, or the IDC. I didn’t know much about the IDC, but I did know that it caucused with Senate Republicans. This was a few days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration and the historical women’s marches around the country (and globe). Just the day before, I had brought my 3-and-a-half-year-old and 8-month-old sons to a protest outside of Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand’s offices in Midtown Manhattan, in the rain, to urge them to vote against Betsy DeVos, our new secretary of education. We were just beginning to mount our resistance campaign against the national Trump agenda and now it appeared that we had to fight it much closer to home.
My neighbors and I began a phone and email campaign, demanding that Senator Peralta hold an open public forum to discuss his decision. His staff stated that no such public meeting was planned, so we constantly urged our neighbors to call and make similar demands. Finally, after a lot of pushing (including an attempt by the senator to ask if I could host a meeting at my own apartment with some of his critics – an offer I immediately refused), the senator agreed to hold a meeting, but he did not publicize this through any of the usual channels, such as his social media, his official Senate web page, or through the email list where he communicates occasionally to constituents. Instead, his staff personally called those who had requested the meeting.
As a result, the community had to build for the meeting with only three day’s notice. No less than four Facebook events were created, and the event was shared through various social media channels. I created a flyer (with input from neighbors), and this flyer was posted all over the neighborhood (with help from some PSC members).
The event, which occurred on February 3 at 6:00 pm, was standing room only before it even began. By the time my husband arrived at 6:10 pm, there was a huge line of people around the block. Inside, Peralta attempted to explain the intricacies of State Senate politics, no easy task considering the volatile nature of the power struggles between Democrats and Republicans.
Because of creative districting, the Senate has historically maintained razor-thin majorities for one side or another, and there are 32 Democrats and 31 Republicans in the Senate (although Simcha Felder of Brooklyn caucuses with the Republicans). Senator Peralta blamed Senator Felder for shifting the political balance throughout the evening, although there was no discussion about how Democrats were going to win him back. The IDC now has eight members, strongly solidifying the Republican majority in the Senate. In return, IDC members get choice benefits, such as committee chair appointments, and IDC leader Jeff Klein of the Bronx gets to be the fourth of the “three men in a room” who largely decide New York state policies and outcomes.
Republican control of the upper house of the Legislature is no small matter. State Republicans have introduced bills to penalize the city for refusing to turn over personal immigration information gathered via IDNYC and have refused to allow a sanctuary bill, which passed the State Assembly, from leaving committee (although the Republicans did support the union’s maintainance-of-effort bill).
PSC members as constituents, but also as residents of New York State, have the right and obligation to demand more from our state officials. There is a saying “all good things die in the Senate” and these good things include the DREAM Act, LGBT protections, criminal justice reform, much needed funding for K-12, voting reforms (such as early voting and automatic voter registration), a New York Single Payer act, campaign finance reform and adequate funding for CUNY.
I urge PSC members, no matter where you live, to demand that your Democratic lawmakers, no matter who they are, form a united progressive front in the state government, our front line in the fight against Trump’s agenda.
Susan Kang is an associate professor of political science at John Jay College.