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Sen. Hamilton Defends Switch to IDC, Dismisses Backlash as 'Disingenuous'

 Jesse Hamilton is a state senator representing Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens and parts of Park Slope and Gowanus.
Jesse Hamilton is a state senator representing Crown Heights, Prospect Lefferts Gardens and parts of Park Slope and Gowanus.
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DNAinfo/Rachel Holliday Smith

CROWN HEIGHTS — Three months since Brooklyn representative Jesse Hamilton broke off from the main Democratic caucus in the state senate, critics and constituents are criticizing the move with negative flyers, protests and a threat to picket his birthday party.

Hamilton joined the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC, just before the November election, making the switch to the Republican-aligned group with relatively little fanfare. But lately, backlash against Hamilton’s move has grown in the 20th Senate District, where critics are becoming more vocal about their disapproval of the IDC.

On Thursday, protesters who called the move “shameful” in flyers posted in his district had planned to rally outside Hamilton’s birthday party at a Park Slope restaurant; the event was ultimately canceled due to Thursday’s snowstorm, his staff said.

The next day, however, organizers from Rise and Resist protested outside of Hamilton’s Bedford Avenue office in Crown Heights, urging him and all the other IDC members to “act like real Democrats,” they said in an event posting.

The backlash follows intense criticism of two other recent members of the IDC in New York City. In Queens, Sen. Jose Peralta has been booted from a political club and shouted down at a town hall due to his recent switch to the conference. In Upper Manhattan, Sen. Marisol Alcantara, too, is facing pressure to rejoin the Democrats.

There are now nine Democrats in the senate who do not promise to vote with their party: eight are members of the IDC and one, Simcha Felder, is aligned with Republicans, giving the GOP a slim majority, according to a recent count by The New York Times. Critics of the IDC, including the Democrats' leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, told the paper those who join the conference are doing so only for more power and more perks.

Despite the backlash, however, Hamilton mostly dismissed the critics angry with his decision to join the IDC. In response to questions from DNAinfo New York about the move, he underscored his progressive priorities and commitment to Democratic legislation.

But he also refused to answer some inquiries — including what it would take to bring him back in the fold with the majority Democrats — and said the backlash is “disingenuous and strange,” suggesting “someone else” is putting protesters up to it, without explaining who or what that may be.

Take a look at the full Q & A via email Friday with Sen. Hamilton below:

DNAinfo New York: Tell us why you decided to join the Independent Democratic Conference in November. Should your constituents view this as a shift away from the ideals of the Democratic Party?

Sen. Jesse Hamilton: I switched conferences, not parties in order to deliver for my community and get results for New Yorkers. We held the first hearing on Raise the Age earlier this week, and we will prevent 16- and 17-year-olds from going through the adult justice system. We are moving forward on college affordability for all, protecting immigrant communities and tackling the housing crisis. Should we let our teenagers get thrown in jail with adults for another two years waiting for the Democrats to win more seats? Should we keep the progressive agenda on hold? The communities I represent deserve the advances we can make on these issues.

A group had planned to protest your birthday party in Park Slope with flyers calling your move to the IDC “shameful.” What was your reaction to that call for protest? What would you say to those organizing a rally against you?

There are 31 Republican senators, plus Senator Simcha Felder who create a Majority.

I didn’t get elected to be on the sidelines or to grandstand, I got elected to make serious advances in policy, help the communities I represent, and help all New Yorkers through challenging times. We have communities facing real anxiety with the Trump administration’s, frankly, bigoted executive orders. We have an immigrant assistance hotline 1-800-213-6385, we have an Immigrant Defense Coalition helping deliver services, we have established a Civil and Human Rights Task Force. I am committed to making change both in Albany and in our neighborhood.

Some critics of the IDC say its members join the group because they receive more power and more perks: bigger staffs, better offices and better positions on committees. Was that on your mind when you made the switch in November?

I wanted to deliver on policy that improves our quality of life, shares prosperity, opens access to opportunity, and makes our communities more livable.

It isn’t about perks, it’s about taking responsibility seriously and using the influence the IDC has to effect change that helps New Yorkers.

You are not the only member of the IDC being targeted by protesters; State Senator Jose Peralta of Queens and State Senator Marisol Alcantara have also faced a backlash in recent weeks. Why do you think your move to the IDC is facing criticism now, three months after your decision to join the conference?

That's a good question and you should ask the protesters you referenced previously. For three months my constituents and people of Brooklyn have been proud of the work I have been doing on Raise the Age, immigrant protection policies and banking issues and they still are. It seems kind of disingenuous and strange that all of a sudden there is this backlash. Maybe some other group or someone else is putting them up to it.

What, if anything, would it take to get you to leave the IDC and rejoin the Democrats in the state senate?

I am proud of the work the IDC is doing. We are making real progress on an agenda that upholds New York values. Advancing shared prosperity, valuing inclusiveness, promoting a humane justice system, and improving the quality of life of New Yorkers. I am proud to fight for those values alongside my colleagues and any colleague who shares that vision.