Albany Is At Stake:
Queens Special Election To Define Balance Of Power In State Senate
By DOMENICK RAFTER
On March 16, voters in the 13th Senatorial district will go to the polls to fill the State Senate seat vacated when Hiram Monserrate was expelled from the body last month.
Among the three candidates running for the Jackson Heights-centered seat are a longtime assemblyman, a civil court judge and Monserrate himself. Turnout is expected to be low and that could lead to a surprise outcome, including the possibility that Monserrate himself will end up back in the same seat he was expelled from.
|Hiram Monserrate (l. to r.), Robert Beltrani and Jose Peralta face off March 16 for an election that will shape the course of the New York State Senate.
A District Of Diversity
Looking at a map of the 13th Senatorial district, it doesn't have the same gerrymandered borders as many other State Senate districts. It is bordered mostly by highways: Grand Central Parkway to the north and east, the BQE on the west down to 35th Ave, and the Horace Harding Expressway between Junction Boulevard and the Grand Central Parkway. The district is centered in Jackson Heights, but also includes the neighborhoods of Corona, East Elmhurst and parts of Elmhurst and Woodside.
As of the last Census, taken a decade ago, more than half of the district's more than 300,000 residents are Hispanic. While demographically one may call this "a Hispanic district," the district is well known for its cultural and ethnic diversity. There is a large and growing Asian population, not only Chinese and Korean, but also voters who descend from the Indian subcontinent, a still vibrant Irish and Italian population, as well a growing community of young professionals branching out from nearby Astoria looking for lower rents.
The younger community also brought in a fairly large LGBT community, which rivals Astoria as the largest in the borough. Jackson Heights is home to the Queens Gay Pride Parade and Festival each June.
The district was created in 2000, taking territory from the other districts to create a Hispanic-majority district. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic. Until 2010, only once had a Republican appeared on the ballot since its creation. On paper, one would have expected a Hispanic candidate to easily win this seat, but when the district held its first election under the current borders in 2002, New York City Councilman John Sabini, an Italian-American, won a three-way Democratic primary in 2002 where two other Hispanic candidates split the vote, allowing Sabini to win with 46 percent. Sabini was reelected in 2004, surviving a primary challenge from a Hispanic candidate, but in 2006, he faced a strong challenge in the Democratic primary, winning by 242 votes against the man who inherited his City Council seat, Hiram Monserrate.
With Monserrate preparing for a rematch, in 2008 Sabini was given a State job, heading up the Racing and Wagering Board, opening the seat for Monserrate, who was unopposed in both the primary and general elections.
Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) is the odds-on favorite to win the special election. Peralta had already announced he would challenge Monserrate in September's Democratic primary after Monserrate's vote against same-sex marriage in December. Peralta immediately got the support of the Queens Democratic Party in December and after Monserrate's expulsion from the Senate, got the support of the party and other local officials for the special election. Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-East Elmhurst), Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), who once served as Monserrate's chief of staff when he was a city councilman, have all thrown their support behind Peralta. Peralta also has the support of local labor unions, LGBT rights activists and NARAL Pro-Choice New York.
The advocacy group Fight Back New York, which lists its purpose as targeting a select group of New York State Senators who voted against marriage equality, threw its support behind Peralta, listing Monserrate as "Target No. 1".
Opponents of same-sex marriage have attempted to use Peralta's support for LGBT rights against him. Posters have appeared throughout Jackson Heights, Corona and East Elmhurst, where many older socially conservative Hispanic Catholics live, that point out Peralta thrice voted for a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in New York State, and calling him "the leading spokesperson for the gay community in New York City."
Fight Back New York responded to the postings, blaming them on Monserrate.
"With each hate-mongering, fear-rattling, equality-stunting volley, Hiram Monserrate digs another foot down into his political grave. Monserrate's attacks on marriage equality are both a moral and political misjudgment," said Valerie Berlin, spokeswoman for Fight Back New York.
Peralta is also running on the ballot line of the Working Families Party, which gave its line to Monserrate in 2008. The Working Families Party has a strong ground game which has been given credit for many Democratic wins or surprise showings in recent years, including former NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson's near victory over Mike Bloomberg in last year's mayoral race.
Could Monserrate Win It Back?
Despite his reputation being tarnished by his misdemeanor conviction and his role in the leadership coup that paralyzed the State Senate last summer, Monserrate still has supporters in the district. He touts his achievements over the years as both a city councilman and a State Senator, pointing out that he had gotten funding to refurbish playgrounds and parks, and was able to get legislation passed in Albany, even after antagonizing the Senate leadership.
Monserrate did not receive the ballot line of the Democratic Party, or any other party, for the special election. He was able to secure enough signatures to get on the March 16 ballot as an independent - a campaign that has created controversy among Democrats for using the campaign slogan of President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, Yes We Can, as his ballot name. Monserrate's campaign literature includes a logo that looks very familiar; a yellow Q which greatly resembles the O used as the logo of Obama's campaign. Obama won 82 percent of the vote in the district in the 2008 Presidential Election.
Monserrate blames his expulsion not on his conviction for assaulting his girlfriend, but said the Democratic leadership used the incident as a convenient excuse and their real problem with him was his role in the coup attempt that took down former Majority Leader Malcolm Smith. He said the Democratic establishment didn't care about Karla Giraldo, the woman Monserrate was convicted of assaulting, and only wanted to get rid of him because of his role in the coup.
Monserrate said he did not want the incident to define his public service career, and expected that his reputation would recover. He pointed to the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose political career most had written off after the 1970 Chappaquiddick incident, as an example of someone who can recover from a scandal and go on to a long renowned career in politics.
"I don't think anyone should have their entire life judged over one mistake," Monserrate said.
Even should he lose on March 16, Monserrate said it would be not be the end of the line for him,
"Quitting is not part of Hiram Monserrate's makeup," he said. "New Yorkers don't quit. I'm a New Yorker".
Should Peralta beat Monserrate, Monserrate could run for Peralta's vacant Assembly seat. While Monserrate would have to battle other candidates, and should he win would be a lot less influential as a member of the 150-seat Assembly, such a move would keep Monserrate relevant in local politics.
The Republican Wild Card
The Republicans are running Robert Beltrani, an Administrative Law Judge at the Department of Parole, who, despite the district's strong Democratic lean, hopes to capitalize on the mudslinging between Peralta and Monserrate, as well as the public's strong disdain for Albany.
Beltrani is running as the Albany outsider and said both Peralta and Monserrate are ethically challenged, pointing to the controversy that bubbled up in December over Peralta's campaign finances and $250,000 in unaccounted funding to a non-profit that he helped start. Beltrani said he would expect that controversy to catch up to Peralta again when he is in the State Senate, providing another "distraction."
"I can bring honesty and integrity," Beltrani said, "I wasn't recently convicted and I don't have an ethical cloud hanging over my head."
Beltrani is running as an unabashed conservative, calling for smaller government, a freeze on spending, and lower taxes. He also opposes same-sex marriage and civil unions, but said he would support a referendum on the subject and support whatever the public's decision would be. He holds a similar view on abortion rights; personally opposing them, but respecting it as the law of the land. Beltrani opposed the Rockefeller Drug Laws, calling them "draconian," but said he felt the Democrats had "swung the pendulum too far" in liberalizing the laws.
Reach Reporter Domenick Rafter at email@example.com or (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125.