Since the 2016 election resulted in Donald Trump’s presidency and a renewed energy among New York’s liberal activists, candidates across the state are lining up to challenge members of the Independent Democratic Conference, the breakaway group of Democratic state Senators who share power with the Republican caucus. Progressive pressure groups such as the Working Families Party, have labeled IDC members “Trump Dems,” and lent support to their primary opponents.
Most of the races only feature one primary challenger. On Monday, Lewis Kaminski dropped his campaign against IDC leader Jeff Klein and endorsed fellow challenger Alessandra Biaggi. But, with the entrance of trans activist and Jackson Heights resident Andrea Marra, Queens’ District 13 will now host a three-way race to determine whether state Senator Jose Peralta remains the Democratic nominee in November.
Until early February, Peralta was only facing a primary challenge from Jessica Ramos, a former press aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio. But Marra’s announced her candidacy on February 8th in a district composed of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, Corona and parts of Astoria and Woodside.
Marra, 32, who was born in Seoul before she was adopted by a white family who lived in the Capital Region, has spent her career as an activist working on LGBTQ rights and pro-immigration causes. She first got a taste of activism in high school by lobbying for the passage of New York’s Dignity for All Students Act, which was eventually signed into law in 2010 to combat bullying and discrimination in schools. Marra moved to New York City to study at Pace University and has spent her post-college career working with organizations including Nodutdol for Korean Community Development and GLAAD, where she worked to help end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the US military. Currently she serves as a communications manager for the Arcus Foundation, an LGBT right organization.
Marra believes that her election, which would make her the first transgender state Senator and the first Asian-American state Senator in New York history, would help add a sense of urgency to efforts to pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a bill which would add gender identity to the state’s Human Rights Law and has been unable to make it out of the Senate since its introduction in 2003. “Even for some Democrats, they’re still coming to terms with what GENDA means and how it impacts the trans community,” Marra told City & State. “I think that’s fair, but we need fresh leadership in the state legislature to be able to talk about those issues in an authentic way.”
In addition to Marra's campaign to become the first transgender state Senator, Melissa Skarz from Queens is vying to unseat Brian Barnwell in the 30th Assembly district to become that body's first trans legislator.
Marra is staking her run on progressive causes, including repeal of the Urstadt Law, which prevents New York City from instituting its own rent control laws, passage of the Roe v. Wade-codifying Reproductive Health Act and the New York Health Act, which would create a single-payer universal health insurance system. Marra emphasizes that a Democratic majority must control the state Senate in 2019 to make sure a renegotiation of the state’s rent regulations is set to take place. Of particular importance to her immigrant-heavy, mostly working-class and middle-class district, Marra wants to “upgrade” the public bus system, legalize basement apartments and ensure the city’s public hospitals (including District 13’s Elmhurst Hospital) are properly funded by the state.
As is so often the case with candidates taking on an incumbent, Marra is banking on voter frustration with Albany intrigue – and, in this case, Peralta’s decision to join the IDC – to help carry her over the finish line. “I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why Jose Peralta has received so much flack for his decision to join the IDC, because he made that decision without the consultation of the voters in his district,” Marra said.
Although no public polling has been done, it’s fair to say Marra is starting out in third place behind the incumbent and Ramos, who has picked up key anti-IDC endorsements from the WFP, People for Bernie, a grassroots activist group supporting progressive candidates, and No IDC NY, a grassroots coalition devoted to taking out IDC members. (A fourth candidate, 17-year-old Tahseen Chowdhury had just $686 in his account as of his most recent filing).
Thanks to what Marra said is a nationwide network of friends and supporters she knows from her national advocacy work, her campaign is well-funded, having quietly raised almost $50,000, compared to just over $30,000 for Ramos and $157,000 in Peralta’s campaign account. Still, Marra readily admitted that Ramos, has served on Community Board 3 and as a Democratic district leader in Jackson Heights in addition to her work in the de Blasio administration, is more of a known factor in the community – as, of course, is Peralta.
Marra will have a lot of catching up to do if she wants to win the support of influential local activists. Tania Mattos, an immigrants’ rights organizer in Jackson Heights, said she is backing Ramos because of their decade-long relationship and her work in the community, including Ramos’ opposition to an expansion of the 82nd Street Business Improvement District to Roosevelt Avenue. Mattos said that while she would be interested in hearing more from Marra, Ramos “has been there and understands the community’s needs,” and lines up with her own views on preventing displacement of lower-income residents due to gentrification and reforming police practices.
Bianey Garcia, a trans rights activist in Jackson Heights, also said she isn’t intimately familiar with Marra but that she is “excited a transgender person is running against Jose Peralta, because (transgender people) don’t have any representation in Albany” and that she was also underwhelmed with Peralta’s advocacy on behalf of trans residents in his district. Peralta recently brushed off concerns from Jackson Heights’ trans citizens that they were overly-targeted by prostitution stings, telling New York magazine that his office was concerned with respecting the work of officers trying to crack down on prostitution.
A spokesman for Peralta’s office wrote in an emailed statement that the senator welcomes Marra’s presence in the race. He also defended Peralta’s history on LGBT rights. Peralta’s “record speaks for itself,” wrote Juan Soto Bouzas. “He co-sponsors GENDA, and has been fighting and pushing to ensure GENDA becomes a reality, and continues to take steps for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. In addition, Senator Peralta is a co-sponsor of a bill that would require the Board of Education and trustees of every school district to establish procedure with regard to transgender and gender non-conforming students, as well as another bill that provides for broad equal rights and antidiscrimination protections for New Yorkers, currently excluded from the state’s constitution. He also co-sponsors a proposal to ban conversion therapy, a bill that prohibits mental health professionals from engaging in any practice intended to change the sexual orientation, gender expression, mannerisms, behaviors or feelings of attraction toward members of the same sex with patients under the age of 18.” Bouzas also wrote Peralta works to raise awareness of violence against LGBT New Yorkers: “Since being elected to the state Senate in 2010, Senator Peralta has sponsored and participated in several forums focused on violence or misconduct against the LGBTQ community, and in several marches denouncing hate crimes against the transgender community.”
Despite Ramos’ endorsements and connections, Marra said that her activist background gives her a stronger insight into the legislative process than Ramos and that it’s “very early on and we should give our neighbors in the district a chance to meet us and make an informed decision.” Ramos did not respond to a request from City & State for comment.
But will having two challengers end up splitting the anti-IDC vote and ensuring Peralta’s reelection? In 2016, a four-way race saw IDC pick Marisol Alcantara triumph with only a plurality of the primary vote. At the moment though, neither Marra nor Mattos seemed worried about that possibility.
“There’s very a high level of discontent with [Peralta] from many, many people,” Mattos said of the incumbent state Senator, who was kicked out of his local Democratic club but recently picked up the endorsement of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has 2000 members in the district and surrounding area according to the RWDSU.
Marra, while leaving the door open for a discussion about who the single best candidate to beat Peralta could be, “down the line,” said that in this early stage of the race “it is personally exciting to see two strong women of color challenging in this primary. In the moment we’re in nationwide, it’s exciting to see candidates that I think previously wouldn’t have even been considered for these races now running with strong support.”