It’s budget time in Albany, and Simcha Felder’s progressive constituents are taking to the streets to demand that the state senator, who’s voted with Republicans for the past four years, hear their voices.
The NY State 17th District for Progress rallied at least 30 people to chant, flier, and demand representation on Avenue J this morning, calling the senator a “fake democrat.”
The progressive, grassroots group is only a couple months old, said organizer Natasha Wimmer, attracting constituents who have recently learned that their Democratic State Senator consistently votes with the GOP. For example, in June Felder blocked a bill by democrats to impose a 5 cent fee on plastic bags, calling the fee a “tax on the poor.” (The controversial bill was struck down by Governor Cuomo in February.)
“Although you have run as a Democrat, your support for Republican positions prevents important legislation from passing in the New York State Legislature,” states the petition to Felder, which was hand-delivered to his Brooklyn office today. “Do the right thing for all of your constituents.”
The issues, in brief
The progressive constituent group is demanding that Felder drop his bill to raise the speed limit on Ocean Parkway, and support four other bills sitting on his desk right now: the New York Health Act, Raise The Age of criminal responsibility to at least 18, voter reforms, and school funding.
“We want Felder to endorse the NY Health Act [create a universal single-payer health plan], which is just two votes away from a majority in the senate,” said Ditmas Park resident JP Schlegelmilch. The bill is currently stuck in the Senate Health Committee, but Felder hasn’t made a public decision yet.
“New York has some of the most repressive and archaic voter laws,” said Jess Byrne, noting that the state ranks 41st in voter turnout. “Albany politicians act like this is a lifetime job. If more people vote, they wouldn’t know what to expect.”
“I always vote,” said constituent Grace Veras Sealey, one of the 117,000 Brooklyn voters improperly erased from the voter rolls last year. Sealy was turned away at the primary polls and re-registered — but still had trouble voting during the general election. She voted affidavit and only recently learned that her vote was counted in November. “That just shouldn’t happen,” she said, holding a sign demanding “Automatic Voter Registration Or Get The Fuck Out” (spelled in an acronym).
“Putting children in lockup shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” said another constituent advocating for Raise the Age, who wished to remain anonymous.
The only line-item in the group’s list that Felder has publicly supported is the one that the group vehemently opposes — the bill to raise the speed limit on Ocean Parkway back to the pre-Vision Zero 30mph.
Last week, the issue caused an uproar from Kensington to Sheepshead Bay, with many drivers supporting the bill as a potential traffic reliever, and others citing the dramatically higher risks for pedestrians. But the lines aren’t always cut-and-dry.
“I’m a driver, too,” said Holly White, who lives near Ocean Parkway. White is passionate about lower speed limits because she’s afraid every time her 9-year-old son has to cross the parkway by himself.
Felder’s divided constituent base
New York’s State Senate District 17 spans a wide — and politically divided — swath of Brooklyn, including Borough Park, parts of Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay, Sunset Park, Ditmas Park, Kensington, and Midwood.
And not all the passersby on Avenue J expressed support for the progressive priorities, especially members of the visibly Ultra-Orthodox Jewish base. “I love Trump,” said one yarmulke-wearing man, incredulously. He darted into the Dunkin’ Donuts but came right back out to probe the crowd.
“Trump the anti-Semite?” shouted a protester after him. “There’s so much cognitive dissonance here.”
“Felder represents me,” said another woman, objecting to the flier pushed into her hands. “25mph on Ocean Parkway just doesn’t make sense around here,” she said, citing her main concerns as improved sanitation and workers compensation reforms.
But there are different voices even within Borough Park’s Jewish base, said Suzanne, who works at the neighborhood’s Progressive Temple Beth Ahavot Shalom, (though she came out today as a private citizen.)
“Felder’s most vocal base is very conservative, but they’re Democrat in name, so they like his whole shtick,” said one resident, who wished to remain anonymous.
“When my family and I immigrated here 20 years ago, we were just trying to get settled and weren’t paying attention to politics,” they said. “I think he’s really taking advantage of that base.”
Through the din of protesters singing, and sporadic, combative conversations on the corner, they added that progressives need to reach out to Rabbis and congregations — the real influencers in the community.
“We object to being ignored”
Protesters claimed that they’ve tried to get an in-person meeting with Felder, but were thwarted by his staff. Some said they got Felder on the phone but felt like they were being kept at arm’s length. “You feel like it’s just lip service,” said White. “It’s a hugely diverse district,” she said. “But there are a lot of voices not being heard.”
“We object to being ignored,” the petition states, echoing gripes from Bay Ridge residents in U.S. Congressman Dan Donovan’s district.
Progress representative David Goldberg, pushing a baby stroller, hand-delivered the petition to Felder’s office, bearing 66 signatures from constituents mostly from Kensington, Ditmas Park, Midwood, and Sunset Park. And for many, this is just the beginning.
“This is just a warning shot,” said another protestor. “It’s time to vote him out.”
While there was no one to make a statement at Felder’s Brooklyn office today, said a phone operator, Felder wrote this statement when “Jews Against Trump” protesters rallied outside his office in December, reports Kings County Politics:
“I have to do what’s best for my constituents. While I appreciate that some of my constituents may feel differently, I have also found that the majority of those who have contacted me about who I caucus with are not disappointed by my decision [to support Trump],” said Felder.
“For the last four years, I’ve caucused with the Republicans because, irrespective of party affiliation, I never give up on trying to do what’s best for the people I represent. Parties are not a religion. I won’t be intimidated by those who feel differently,” he added.
[We reached out to Senator Felder’s office for comment but were told there would be no one to speak with until Monday. We will add in comments at that time.]