New York, NY —
Voters in Queens will decide if former State Sen. Hiram Monserrate should get his job back after being expelled from the Senate last month by a vote of 53-8. He’ll be running against Assemblyman Jose Peralta in a special election on March 16. Although Peralta has won every major endorsement in the district, he’s still struggling with name recognition. But that might be the best thing going for him in an election against a name like "Hiram Monserrate."
Jose Peralta has been the Assemblyman for the 39th District in Queens for seven years. He received endorsements from labor unions and nearly every major Democratic leader in Queens.
Matt Bishop, a volunteer who trucks across Jackson Heights campaigning for Peralta, says barely anyone knows his candidate, but almost everyone knows Monserrate.
And that’s what Monserrate is banking on. He says he may not have the best kind of publicity, but it’s publicity, and he’ll take it.
With a week and a half to go, he’s hanging out at a restaurant on 37th Avenue in Queens, waiting for a plate of roasted chicken.
"The political bean-counters would say this is an insurmountable challenge," Monserrate says.
Former State Senator Hiram Monserrate.
But Monserrate says he’s got a name people around here really recognize. And that’s true.
Monserrate made headlines when he sliced his girlfriend’s face with glass more than a year ago. He was in the spotlight again last summer when he helped create a deadlock in Albany after temporarily defecting to the Republican party. And then, after being convicted of assault, he was kicked out of office by his Senate colleagues.
Monserrate says people in Albany can think whatever they want, but in this neighborhood, he’s known as a man who leads by personal conviction, not by the winds of public opinion.
"Sometimes that makes you very unpopular with the power structure," he says. But he does not want to be unpopular with his constituents.
"Well, obviously, I think I’m a good guy. I think the people who are supporting me think I’m a good guy and I look forward to the people coming out on March 16 to vote for this good guy, Hiram Monserrate,” he says.
Democratic leaders in Queens are making sure this “good guy” is seen as the bad boy of politics by everyone else. Without any official endorsements, Monserrate has had to run under his own party line, which he calls "Yes We Can." An ex-cop and former city councilman, Monserrate says he doesn’t need to hide behind big friends like Peralta does.
"He’s not his own man," Monserrate says. "In fact, the only reason he’s running is because he’s got all this other support. He would never run against me one-on-one without that support."
Mike Meade is part of a small army of Peralta volunteers manning phone banks, knocking on doors and distributing flyers on the streets of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst,and Corona.
At a recent Peralta rally, supporters chant, “Jose, Jose, Jose, Jose…,” in a sing-song chorus. It sounds like the best thing about Jose Peralta is that he’s not Hiram Monserrate. Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, who is stumping for Peralta, steps up to a podium and says, “You used to have a Senator here who disgraced this community, who embarrassed himself, who embarrassed all of you.”
Peralta says he doesn’t mind being best known for who he’s not.
"It’s prevalent that we hear that I am not Monserrate, and I think that’s a very positive thing that I am not Monserrate," he says.
Peralta spent seven years in the state Assembly where he fought to attract banks to underserved communities in Queens. If elected, he says he wants to bring in more schools to ease overcrowding, and set up more health clinics. But most of the people he bumps into just want to talk about Monserrate and what he did to his girlfriend.
"That was one of the main issues that came up -– what he did to his girlfriend," Peralta says of his campaigning one recent morning. "We cannot forgive."
And if that’s what’s going to fire up his volunteers, Peralta says that’s fine.
Historically, special elections have low voter turnouts, so this election is likely going to come down to who is better staffed and better organized to get people out to vote.
Although Monserrate is outnumbered, it doesn’t faze Mike Nieves, his scrappy one-man campaign team. Nieves says the opposition has only been helping Monserrate.
“I think people are more upset that they expelled him than what else happened. I think it would have been better for the institution and the established government to have left him there than to create an almost martyred image of him in this community,” Nieves says.
Ultimately, it’s going to be up to the voters to decide that. One local resident, Paul DuCett says just watching Monserrate campaigning at the local bagel shop offends him.
"He seemed kind of high-handed, he acted like the godfather of the neighborhood. He would go up to my friends and say, ‘Anything I can do for you, baby, I’ll help you.' Peralta’s a lot nicer."
But another Queens resident, Maria Herrera, hasn’t yet ruled out Monserrate, even after reading all the stories about him assaulting his girlfriend.
“You don’t know if it was true. Sometimes women, they make it up,” Herrera says.
Monserrate says he’s glad voters like Herrera can see past the media’s caricature of him. And after what he calls a “15-month personal journey,” he says he has learned a lot. He says he wants to build more affordable housing in his district and get drugs off the streets. And he wants to make one thing clear: He’s not a violent person.
“You know it’s hurtful when people think this about you because of what they read in the newspaper, what they hear on the television set. But, you know, that which will not kill you will make you stronger,” Monserrate says.
Despite his campaigning, Monserrate is still determined to prevent the special election from happening at all. Next Friday, a federal appeals court will consider his request to undo his expulsion from the Senate and cancel the special election. A lower court rejected every single argument his lawyers raised.