Smith: Is Jose Peralta Really All That Much Better Than Hiram Monserrate?

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Jose Peralta Photo: Jose Peralta

Last summer Hiram Monserrate helped paralyze state government by defecting from his party, only to change his mind days later. In October he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend; in February Monserrate became the first person expelled from the New York State Senate in nearly 100 years ... only to run to replace himself in a special election, campaigning as a staunch opponent of legalizing gay marriage and as a spiritual heir to Cesar Chavez.

So it’s great news that Monserrate is down by 45 points in the most recent poll and that on Tuesday the voters of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst, and Corona are expected to take one small step toward cleaning up Albany. Right?

Well, the favorite, Jose Peralta, hasn’t been convicted of anything, so that’s progress. But hold the cheers for now. One new senator isn’t going to fix the dysfunction, of course, yet Peralta’s path is depressingly typical of what helps keep state government mired in this mess. He began his political career working for Brian McLaughlin, the former assemblyman and labor-union chieftain who two years ago pleaded guilty to stealing $3.1 million. Peralta was elected to the State Assembly in 2002 and, like most of the Democrats in that body, he has been a dependable cog in Shelly Silver’s machine ever since. His bid to shift to the other chamber of the state legislature was only possible with the blessing of Congressman Joe Crowley, the Queens political boss; his campaign is backed by the unions — including the UFT, SEIU 1199, and 32BJ — who have the most clout in Albany; and Peralta’s campaign strategist is from the Parkside Group, a firm that is amassing a list of Senate electoral clients nearly as long as its list of corporate lobbying clients.

Peralta has played the election game exactly right. Whether that benefits the public is a different matter. “The relationships I’ve nurtured over the years can help me build bridges in the legislature,” Peralta says. “And those unions supporting me represent actual people in my district, and it’s those people whose needs I’ll be protecting.”

Perhaps. “Jose is smart,” a fellow Queens Democrat says. “But he isn’t an improvement at all for the Senate as a whole. At least Hiram was at times an independent advocate. You won’t get that out of Jose.”

Which points to the greatest challenge facing Andrew Cuomo, assuming he becomes governor next January: how to make legislators beholden to him instead of to the special interests and the legislature’s bosses. One obvious method is public financing of campaigns, but it’s very tough to persuade incumbents to limit their own resources, and Cuomo isn’t exactly an outsider or a radical: His $16 million war chest contains money from all the usual suspects too. More likely Cuomo will attempt to turn the moribund state Democratic Party into a muscular player again, so that candidates turn to it for help rather than to, say, the Working Families Party, which has lately done a better job of fielding ground troops.

The WFP, among others, will be knocking on doors in support of Peralta, and Queens will probably get a new state senator. Maybe Peralta will reveal a maverick streak once he arrives in his new job. It would be the first pleasant surprise in Albany in a long time.