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Backlash for breakaway Senate Democrats

New York State Senate

A faction of breakaway Democrats in the New York State Senate has been gaining members lately, but they are now facing a backlash, including raucous opposition at meetings in their districts.

When Sen. Jose Peralta announced on his Facebook page that he was joining the Independent Democratic Conference, a growing group of breakaway Democrats in the Senate who form a governing coalition with the Republicans, he said he wanted to “deliver a progressive agenda.”

What Peralta did not expect was a backlash in his Queens district.

Within days, he found himself on the defense in a heated town meeting, where he struggled to explain his decision and highlight what he called the “failures of the regular Democratic conference,” while a crowd chanted, “Throw him out.”

There were, up until now anyway, advantages to being in the IDC. Almost all of the now nine members get a committee chairmanship, which comes with an annual stipend of several thousand dollars. They also have more influence with the GOP than the other Democrats, and they take credit for helping pass an increased minimum wage and paid family leave last year.

Several other Democrats, who have been in the coalition since it formed in 2011, had not suffered much in the way of repercussions, despite ongoing complaints from the rest of the Democrats, who were left in the minority.

But the difference, since Donald Trump was elected president, is that political aggravations have been heightened, and it’s playing out in all levels of government.

Peralta, speaking back in Albany on the first session day since his ill-fated town meeting, blamed it on organized opposition from rank-and-file Democrats.

“We counted about 60 agitators in the room who were sent by the minority conference,” Peralta said. “To, really disrupt the meeting.”

The senator said he knows from the signup sheets at the gathering that some of those attending were not from his district. And he said it only strengthened his resolve that he did the right thing. He said he left because of all the “bad-mouthing” and “cannibalizing” that was going on among Democrats.

The leader of the regular Democrats, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, denies the accusations. She said New Yorkers are experiencing an “awakening” in the Trump era.

“People are paying more attention than ever before to how government works,” Stewart-Cousins said. “And how policies get enacted.”

And she accused the IDC members of being selfish and joining a “false majority.”

“It has been beneficial to them in terms of perks,” she said.

She does not rule out primaries against some of the breakaway senators.

Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan defends the cordial relationship between the GOP and the IDC. He said when it comes down to it, New Yorkers really want both parties to work together.

“They want to know, ‘I don’t care what your label is, what are you doing for me?’ ” Flanagan said. “ ‘What are you doing about my property taxes? What are you doing about my kid’s education?’ ”

Ironically, even if the IDC were to somehow make up with the rest of the Democrats, they still would not be in power in the Senate. That’s because another Democrat, Sen. Simcha Felder, sits with the Republicans, giving them the minimum 32-seat majority they need to keep control of the chamber. And he’s shown no inclination to switch sides.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.