IDC Issue Animates UWS State Senate Primary

Former Councilmember Robert Jackson at a True Blue NY rally focused on State Senator Marisol Alcantara’s role in the Independent Democratic Conference for much of the past two years. | Photo courtesy of Robert Fife

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | In next Thursday’s Democratic primary, State Senator Marisol Alcántara and former City Councilmember Robert Jackson will face off for the second time — but the political dynamics in New York have changed a lot since their first encounter in 2016.

This year, party activists as well as many mainstream Democrats, fired up in opposition to President Donald Trump, are also taking aim at some of the eight Democrats in the State Senate who for most of the past two years sat as the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) and gave their leadership votes to the minority Republican Conference, allowing the GOP to hold on to control of the Senate and block key progressive initiatives from winning passage.

Alcántara was a member of the IDC from the day she took her seat in January 2017 until the caucus was dissolved this past April and its members rejoined the regular Democratic Conference. Though critics charge that the IDC-Republican alliance blocked progress on issues including universal health care, women’s reproductive rights, strengthened protections for rent-regulated tenants, immigrant protections, and transgender civil rights, Alcantara touts 12 bills she has written and seen enacted and more than $7 million she’s brought back home to Senate District 31, which runs up the west side of Manhattan from Hell’s Kitchen to Inwood.

Still, despite the dissolution of the IDC, a number of its former members are facing high-profile challengers like Jackson.

When asked about her time in the IDC and if voters should believe it is truly dissolved — the defecting Democrats pledged several years ago to return to the fold only to later renege on that commitment — Alcántara argued that even after the Democratic Conference was reunited, with the exception of Brooklyn’s Simcha Felder who separately aligns himself with the Republicans, key progressive legislation couldn’t get passed. Two months remained in the legislative session after the IDC folded up shop, she noted, but the New York Health Act, and the DREAM Act were among the progressive goals that still did not win approval.

“I don’t even know what to tell people,”Alcántara said. “If it’s dissolved, it’s dissolved. What else can I do?”

Voters, she added, will have to decide for themselves.

State Senator Marisol Alcántara at an immigrant rights rally. | Photo courtesy of Joanna Herrera

Among her accomplishments in her 20 months in the Senate, Alcántara said, are a law requiring landlords to publish non-rental fees for rent-regulated apartments, another requiring the State Health Department to take “immediate action” when lead poisoning is found, and a variety of measures providing assistance to underserved communities, including one that supports several mental health services centers in her district addressing the high rates of suicide among Latinas and LGBTQ youth.

The last contest between Alcántara and Jackson, who served in the Council from 2001 through 2013, was a tight race. Jackson lost by just 533 votes with 30 percent of the electorate. Micah Lasher took 31 percent of the votes, and Alcántara 32 percent. Jackson had also run for the seat in 2014.

But, he said, 2018 is entirely different.

New groups have popped up — “like flowers in the springtime,” Jackson said — such as No IDC NY and True Blue NY, due in large measure to the grassroots energy that has exploded since Trump’s election.

Constituents, Jackson said, “know that all of these bills have been passed by the New York State Assembly and basically have not even been voted upon by the New York State Senate because of Republicans controlling the agenda,” Jackson said.

Jackson — a longtime parent activist for school funding — said that when Alcántara took her seat a pressing need facing schools around the state was the $4.3 billion shortfall in education funds Albany owed them under the terms of a 2006 court ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. A key mover in bringing that suit, Jackson said the amount owed to schools in District 31 alone amounted to $52 million. The IDC, he charged, failed to stand up for the public schools, helping to scuttle the State Assembly’s effort to force the state to make good on its obigation.

It’s “shameful that they basically disregarded the children’s education,” Jackson said. “[The] IDC and Marisol have enabled the Republicans to maintain that control so none of those laws has been passed.”

Alcántara argued that even without the eight IDC votes, the defection of Brooklyn’s Felder continued to give the Republicans control of the Senate.

“People always say, ‘Oh, you guys want to use Simcha as an excuse,’” she said. “Well it’s not an excuse, it’s a reality.”

The challenges that Jackson and others are mounting against IDC incumbents are part of a larger progressive insurgnecy in New York and elsewhere that in June propelled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist, to defeat Congressmember Joe Crowley, a 19-year incumbent and the head of the Queens Democratic Party, in a district that also includes sections of the Bronx.

In August, Alcántara, speaking on Ben Max and Jared Murphy’s WBAI radio show, said that she — as a woman of color — is held to a “purity test” that isn’t equally applied to others, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is widely seen as having implicitly supported the IDC’s aligment with the Republicans. When asked if Cynthia Nixon’s tough primary challenge to Cuomo wasn’t an effort to hold him accountable, as well, Alcántara argued that the governor has won the lion’s share of establishment endorsements, which she does not enjoy.

Another self-described democratic socialist, Julia Salazar — who is challenging Brooklyn incumbent Martin Malave Dilan, who was not part of the IDC faction — also “gets a pass,” as Alcántara put it.

“You see the case of someone like Julia Salazar in Brooklyn, who totally made up the story of who she is,” Alcántara said. “Because she’s not in the IDC, she gets a pass.”

City & State last week challenged Salazar’s claims that she is a Colombian immigrant from a working class family, quoting some of her family members. Claiming Ocasio-Cortez’s mantle as a democratic socialist, Alcántara asserted, allowed Salazar to dodge questions about the anti-choice viewpoints she championed while in college.

Alcántara is correct that, unlike Cuomo, she has not drawn the bulk of endorsements from establishment Democrats. Jackson is supported by Congressmembers Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, other elected officials from the district including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Assemblymembers Linda Rosenthal, Deborah Glick, Inez Dickens, and Al Taylor, former Mayor David Dinkins, and former Congressmember Charlie Rangel.

Jackson also has cross-endorsements with gubernatorial hopeful Nixon and attorney general candidate Zyphyr Teachout, whom he described as a “corruption buster.”

Alcántara, however, has a key supporter in Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who heads the Democratic Conference, and has been endorsed, as well, by powerful unions including SEIU 1199, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the New York State Nurses Association, TWU 100, and District Council 37.

Alcántara told Manhattan Express she has recently been focused on passing a long-stalled bill to protect tens of thousands of farmworkers from labor abuses across the state.

A priority for both both candidates is strengthening the rent laws — and giving the power back to the city to control its rent-regulated apartments by repealing the 1971 Urstadt Law that keeps that authority in the Legislature in Albany. A package of bills advancing those goals passed the Assembly earlier this year but did not get Senate approval. The Assembly measures would have ended vacancy decontrol and the vacancy bonus given landlords and forbidden preferential rent used as a come-on to tenants later given allowable increases that they can’t afford.

Asked about new legislative priorities, Jackson said his focus, if elected, is on clearing the backlog of progressive measures he said the IDC has been instrumental in blocking.

“New legislation — we need to wait on that,” he said. Restoring speed cameras in front of schools and addressing rent law reform and public school funding are among the highest priorities he mentioned.

Pushing back on the narrative that the IDC has stymied progressive measures, Alcántara highlighted bills she wrote that passed the Senate but not the Assembly, including one directing the State Health Department to study black women’s maternal mortality rates. If re-elected, she hopes to see that legislation become law and to focus on more bills to help women — and women of color, in particular.

When asked whether she would have chosen differently two years ago when she joined the IDC if she had it to do over, Alcántara said, “I joined the IDC when a lot of people from the mainstream establishment were not willing to support a candidate with my background.”

Voters will have the ultimate say on what Alcántara’s role in the IDC meant and which candidate can best advance the progressive policies supported by the city’s elected officials at the ballot box on Sept. 13.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to an editing error, in the original posting of this article, Assemblymembers Inez Dickens and Al Taylor were incorrectly cited as having endorsed Marisol Alcántara. In fact, both assemblymembers have endorsed Robert Jackson.

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