Primary Debates in Jackson Heights Get Raucous

From left to right, Ari Espinal, Catalina Cruz and Yonel Letellier at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center in Queens. (Photo by Javier Castaño via Queens Latino)

“Why did you go to Corona to seek the support of former Sen. Monserrate?” Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley asked candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, his opponent in the upcoming Tuesday, June 26, [primary] election for the seat representing District 14, which comprises parts of Queens and the Bronx. “That man cut his girlfriend’s face, stole thousands of dollars and went to jail for it.”

“I did not go to seek his support, and I do not want to be associated with Monserrate,” replied an irritated Ocasio. Three debates were held last Thursday from 7:10 to 9:30 p.m. at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights in Queens. Even though the event had a full house and many people were unable to go in, the borough’s Latino constituency was noticeably absent.

The second debate brought Assemblywoman Ari Espinal face to face with her two opponents, Catalina Cruz and Yonel Letellier, who are collecting signatures to appear on the Democratic primary ballot in September. Cruz also asked Letellier why he has sought the support of Monserrate. He replied: “Monserrate does not speak for me, and I have fought against domestic violence.”

“These three debates mark a new period in the politics of this area of Queens, as they are something we have never seen before,” said professor and op-ed writer Arturo Ignacio Sánchez. The only veteran politicians present were Rep. Crowley and state Sen. José Peralta, who debated opponent Jessica Ramos.

The most heated debate was between Peralta and Ramos. “You abandoned the Democratic Party to join the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) out of convenience and to receive money, and have abandoned the community at the same time,” said Ramos. Sen. Peralta said that he only regretted not having been able to bring more money to the neighborhood. “We obtained $10 million to protect Dreamers and confront President Trump.”

Peralta added that he has fought to bring money in to improve the MTA and the train service, public schools and to prevent more accidents on Northern Boulevard. “This campaign has to do with legislative experience, records and results, and I have those three qualities to protect this community and immigrants,” said the senator.

“This is the time to repair the MTA, and Sen. Peralta is not the right person to do it. He is receiving money from charter schools,” said Ramos, who is said to be in favor of eliminating entrance exams for specialized schools and abolishing racism and segregation in public schools.

Ramos also spoke of the lack of rental apartments, which is displacing the low-income population. That was the moment when Sen. Peralta questioned the affordable housing apartment where Ramos lives with her husband and their two young children. “Those apartments are for low-income families, and you earned much more than $200,000 a year,” said Sen. Peralta.

A woman who works for Peralta hollered at Ramos that, if she cannot afford rent, “she should go live in a public housing project.” The woman then laughed and adjusted her black rim glasses. At the end of the debate, the senator congratulated her with a high-five!

At the request of debate moderator Chris Barca, from the newspaper Queens Chronicle, the police entered the premises to calm the waters. Ramos said that her favorite restaurant in the area is La Boina Roja because it reminds her of her grandmother’s food. For his part, Peralta said that his favorite is Addictive, which specializes in Spanish food, tapas and wine.

“Most of the money I receive comes from workers, from unions,” said the senator.

Facing the audience, Jessica Ramos and José Peralta. (Photo by Javier Castaño via Queens Latino)

Money is candidate Ocasio’s preferred topic. “I do not receive money from large corporations, while Crowley gets funds from immigration detention centers,” said Ocasio. “I have 10 years’ experience, and we need to change the Democratic Party’s leadership, which has lost more than 1,000 politicians because its strategy is to impose ideas from the top down, disregarding the needs of the community.”

“Congressman Crowley likes to tell his constituents what to do,” added Ocasio, who also wants to abolish ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). “This issue of family separation at the border was created by President Obama,” she said, causing some people in the audience to boo. Ocasio also wants a universal health care system, not “poor, ineffective health insurance.”

“I represent the interests of the community, and I want to continue being its eyes and voice in Congress,” said Crowley. “I have a proven record, and I am proud of the work I have done regarding new jobs, retirement plans and protecting immigrants, as I, too, come from an immigrant family.”

Crowley said that he welcomes Ocasio’s candidacy “because she is young and brings in new energy, and I hope she can make it last until Tuesday the 26.” The two candidates agreed on many topics, including protecting veterans, and the opioid and housing crises.

“I have helped minorities in my district, for instance, to reelect Francisco Moya to the New York State Assembly,” said Rep. Crowley. Moya is currently a council member, and he and Crowley handpicked Ari Espinal to take the Assembly seat left vacant by Moya. Throughout the debate, Council member Daniel Dromm waved a sign supporting Rep. Crowley.

“I have been criticized for having been elected by the Democratic Party to the State Assembly this year, but I have been involved with the community for 13 years, and I have introduced a number of bills this year that benefit all constituents,” said Espinal, showing her political zeal for the first time.

“You were Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras’ chief of staff and chose to remain silent instead of trying to halt the construction of the new building on 82nd Street where a Target will open. Incoming Councilman Moya inherited this problem,” said Espinal in criticism of Catalina Cruz.

“It is true, many things about that building were put into question, and then construction was authorized without much warning,” said Cruz, who is running as a former Dreamer whose mother used to collect cans on Roosevelt Avenue for a living. The other candidate, Yonel Letellier, also questioned Cruz about having voted and lived outside the Assembly District 39 area.

“I want to win your vote. I am a Dreamer, and I am not afraid to speak on behalf of the community, which needs to educate themselves and register to vote,” said Cruz.

“I dream, too. I have a vision for Corona, and I am here because I have fought for it and I deserve to be here,” said Assemblywoman Espinal.

Rep. Joseph Crowley debated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right. (Photo by Javier Castaño via Queens Latino)

The three candidates to the Assembly criticized the service offered by the 7 train and the bus routes crossing the neighborhood, blasted current immigration policy and spoke of the World Cup in Russia. Assemblywoman Espinal said that her favorite team is Mexico, Cruz said it is Colombia, and Letellier evaded the question with a broad and vague answer, saying that he is rooting “for the Americas.”

Letellier’s ambiguity also stood out when he answered questions on his contribution to the community, education, housing and immigration. “We need to elect more ‘real’ people,” he said, refraining from attacking Espinal directly.

The forum was cosponsored by the Interfaith Center of New York, DRUM, New Immigrant Community Empowerment, Jackson Heights People for Public Schools, SAFE, Make Queens Safer, and the Jackson Heights Beautification Group.

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