Hundreds of residents and supporters packed the room, with more people waiting outside, to hear the candidates speak. Eight total Democrats – three for Assembly, two for State Senate and two for Congress – debated local issues and discussed their qualifications for office.
The Democratic primary for both Assembly and State Senate are set for Thursday, September 13.
The first slate was for the Assembly seat currently occupied by incumbent Ari Espinal, who won in a special election in April. Espinal, backed by the Queens Democratic Party, was the only candidate on the ballot.
Opposing Espinal are challengers Catalina Cruz, a Dreamer, lawyer and former political staffer, and Yonel Letellier Sosa, a community and political leader.
The incumbent Espinal, who entered late after standing with some supporters who couldn’t gain entry into the center, reintroduced herself as a Corona native born into a working-class family. Espinal said she became civically engaged at age 13, and has been a public servant ever since.
In her brief time as an elected official, the assemblywoman said she introduced multiple bills, and through the budget, has brought funding back to the community.
“I want to continue to fight for the community and my neighbors,” she said. “I will continue to be that voice in Albany.”
Cruz, who last served as the chief of staff to former Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, spoke about her experience in the City Council and state government, including fighting to keep ICE out of Rikers Island.
She also stated her positions against the 82nd Street development rezoning, for driver’s license for all immigrants and for fair funding in public schools.
Sosa is also no stranger to local politics. His two decades of experience includes stints as chief of staff to State Senator Jose Peralta and president of the New Visions Democratic Club.
On issues of public school funding, worker safety, protecting immigrants, transportation and voting reform, all of the candidates largely agreed.
But sparks flew when questions of eligibility and residency requirements came up. In the cross-examination part of the Assembly debate, Espinal questioned whether both Sosa and Cruz lived long enough in the district to run in the April special election.
Sosa replied that legally, he did not live inside the district long enough at that point.
“If we had known back then, we would have changed the situation,” he said. “There was nothing we could do.”
Cruz answered by calling the special election process “broken” because it doesn’t allow for anyone else other than the candidate chosen by the local Democratic Party to be on the ballot.
When it was Sosa’s turn to ask, he also questioned Cruz’s commitment to the district, claiming she had previously voted in Flushing.
Cruz, who came to the country undocumented from Colombia, said she has fought for the community for a decade, and her love for the community “continues to grow.”
“About 10 years ago, I was not a citizen,” she said. “I couldn’t have voted, so I don’t know what records you found.
“When you are a formerly undocumented immigrant, you understand that how long you’ve lived somewhere or where you come from has absolutely nothing to do with your love for the community or your ability to understand the needs and fight for them,” Cruz added. “What does have something to do is your track record of delivering results.”
She asked Sosa why he sought the support of former councilman and state senator Hiram Monserrate, a disgraced politician with a history of domestic violence and fraud.
“Hiram Monserrate doesn’t speak for me, I think my 25 years in the community speaks for me,” Sosa responded. “The fact that he or many in the community support me, that’s an example of the work I’ve been doing for many years.”
Cruz and Espinal sparred on the 82nd Street development, an issue on which the challenger accused the incumbent of being silent. Espinal said she opposes the project.
The assemblywoman then turned the table on Cruz, noting that when she was chief of staff to Ferreras-Copeland, she was in conversation with the developers.
“Now when it’s convenient, you oppose it,” Espinal said.
Cruz said the only conversations they had were if there was a possibility the former movie theater could turn into a community center or school.
“That never happened, as you can see,” she said.
The second leg of the night was between State Senator Peralta and Jessica Ramos, a former district leader and aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio. In their first debate as political rivals, they clashed over their differences on the now-dissolved Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), specialized high schools and the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain.
Peralta leaned largely on his decades of experience in office. He has been in the State Senate since 2010, and before that, served eight years in the Assembly.
“This race is about who has legislative experience, who has delivered results and who has a proven track record,” he said. “It’s about results in all areas of the district. I’m the only candidate to have the results.”
Ramos went after the state senator for his decision to join the IDC, which previously had a power-sharing coalition with the Republicans in Albany. Peralta has said being in the IDC gave him a seat at the table, the ability to push through progressive legislation, and more funding for his district.
But the challenger said rather than pushing for $1.8 million in funding owed to a public school like PS 69, Peralta just wrote a $100,000 check. And rather than passing the New York Liberty Act, the Dream Act or driver’s licenses for all immigrants, the state senator only got a $10 million legal defense fund.
“Those are real fixes toward making sure New York state is a sanctuary state. That to me is not a tradeoff,” Ramos said. “That to me is you choosing to be part of the problem rather than the solution.”
On school funding, Peralta defended what he brought back to the district, which was $18 million in funding, in addition to $5 million for technology upgrades at schools. He also said the legal defense fund is important to protect immigrants from deportation because “there can’t be a Dream Act without Dreamers.”
“Nearly two years ago, we were in this very same room where we were told that the IDC would help pass the Dream Act, and we were lied to,” Ramos said. “The Dream Act didn’t get passed, neither did the Reproductive Health Act. Neither did a slew of progressive legislation.”
In response, Peralta said they never reached that critical number, 32 votes, to pass legislation like the Dream Act.
The candidates also argued over MTA funding, and the best way to fix the decrepit subway system. Peralta went after Ramos for only tweeting about delays “when you decided you wanted to run for office,” while the challenger hit back at the senator for failing to tackle the issue in the last eight years.
They also differed on the mayor’s proposal to scrap the test to get into the city’s eight elite high schools. Peralta called for more funding and training for students across the board, while Ramos said she wants to eliminate the test and eventually phase out Gifted and Talented programs and specialized high schools.
Tensions flared again when the two debated rent reform. Ramos, who pays preferential rent for her Jackson Heights apartment, said the state senator can’t be trusted to pass reforms when he takes donations from real estate companies.
Peralta replied that only 15 percent of his political contributions come from that sector. He then said Ramos and her husband make more than $200,000, and claimed preferential rent was created “for people of lower income” to stay in their apartments.
Ramos countered after she left her $130,000 job at City Hall to run for a position that pays $80,000.
“I’m not running against you for money,” she said. “I’m running against you because we are struggling in our community and we can’t trust you to stay a Democrat.”
When Ramos pressed Peralta if he regrets joining the IDC and “empowering a Republican majority,” the state senator said his only regret isn’t being able to deliver more. He listed the immigrant legal defense fund, passing a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave and school funding among his top accomplishments.
“Did we get everything? No, things fell off the table,” he said. “But now come January, we’re definitely going to do more.”