Latino Politicians Face Off in ‘Historic’ Debate in Queens

At the podium, Danny Mendoza. Seated from left to right, Ari Espinal, Catalina Cruz and Yonel Letellier. (Photo via Queens Latino)

[This story has been updated to include a segment of a quote that had previously been cut and to provide a different translation of the word “gamonal.”]

Five Latino candidates told each other off at the St. Leo Church’s auditorium in Corona, Queens, last Wednesday in a historic debate in Spanish that attracted almost 400 people. Supporters of each candidate posted signs and distributed information about their campaigns, there was screaming and booing, and insults were exchanged.

District 13 state Sen. José Peralta was called “stupid,” and he attacked his rival Jessica Ramos stating that she turned a deaf ear to the community’s problems while she worked for Mayor Bill de Blasio. The way District 39 Assemblywoman Ari Espinal was handpicked by the Democratic Party was questioned, while Yonel Letellier spoke about the political crisis and got a lukewarm response. Candidate Catalina Cruz refused to reveal the exact date on which she moved to the district so she could be included on the ballot.

The debate served as a preamble to the Democratic Party’s primary election, to be held on Thursday, Sept. 13. The general election will be on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

“In Queens, there is a terrible system of political bosses who are offering our neighborhoods to large corporations to displace the community,” said professor and columnist Arturo Sánchez. He went on to criticize such politicians as state senator José Peralta, councilmen Francisco Moya and Daniel Dromm, as well as assemblyman Michael Den Dekker, “who was handpicked by Joseph Crowley, who was himself handpicked by the Democratic Party almost 20 years ago.”

The audience cheered loudly and some of the politicians’ employees tried to silence Dr. Sánchez. They failed in the attempt.

“This debate opens up a new period in Queens’ Latino politics, and we need to find a new language, know our background and debate with transparency so we can build a better future for our community,” said Javier Castaño, director of newspaper Queens Latino and the debate’s organizer alongside Univisión 41 New York.

As Sánchez spoke, Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entered the auditorium. “Alexandria defeated boss Crowley with her progressive platform, and now we must supervise local politicians so we can reclaim our city,” he said.

“If we want to change the situation, we need to participate in civic events and vote,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who will face Republican Anthony Pappas in November.

At the top of the debate, moderator Castaño asked what the candidates believed was the mistake the Democratic Party made that allowed for [Rep. Joseph] Crowley’s defeat. “There was no mistake. They got too comfortable,” said Assemblywoman Espinal, who broke protocol by sitting on the stage and taking the microphone with her. “Alexandria worked hard, just like the rest of us are doing now.”

(…)

Letellier chimed in by saying that Latinos tend not to vote and this needs to change. “I have worked for many years in the community, and I want to help change the Democratic Party, which has grown apart from Latinos.”

“I think that our community is in crisis,” said Cruz, pointing out her humble origins and the fact that she is a Dreamer. She was also unable to mention any collaboration with community organizations to fight for immigrants. “I have worked from the government,” she said.

(…)

Sen. Peralta insisted a number of times that “yes, we have been successful,” and spoke about the millions of dollars the State Senate has granted his district to improve train service, the school system and to support immigrants.

The main criticism made against Peralta focused on his decision to affiliate with Republicans by joining the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC). “I did it as a last resort to obtain the 32 votes needed in the State Senate, to pass laws and to bring resources to the community,” responded the senator.

“You are a liar, José Peralta,” said Rodolfo Flores, from American Family Community Services. “You know that my organization has fought for the community and we have worked at your office, but you have never assigned me any money since you have been senator. You always have some excuse.” Sen. Peralta said that he did not grant him funds because he “has not officially registered as a nonprofit organization.”

During the debate, the candidates also addressed local issues such as crime and prostitution on Roosevelt Avenue, the development of Willets Point – which was deemed “the biggest scam” perpetrated against the community – the shortage of rental properties and the immigration crisis that the Trump administration has triggered. Another topic that was a hot potato in the debate was the presence of street vendors on Roosevelt Avenue, particularly at the intersection of Junction Boulevard and 75th Street.

“Peralta wants to bring more corporations to Roosevelt,” said Tania Mattos, from Queens Neighborhoods United. “To me, Peralta’s tactics have been stupid.” The senator responded: “I have opposed Target, unlike my opponent Ramos, who worked with the mayor and was unable to convince him to do something for our community.”

(…)

“After Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in June, politicians, people who aspire to be politicians and even conservatives want to adopt her democratic socialist ideas,” said Dr. Sánchez after the debate.

In this neighborhood, which comprises Corona, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Woodside, Sunnyside and Astoria, the Latino population is around 85 percent. “The key is to change the political dynamics of racism and ostracism, and to empower Latinos by holding transparent debates and discussions,” concluded Castaño.

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