Explaining the Monserrate Mess

The New York state Senate voted late last night to expel Sen. Hiram Monserrate by a vote of 53 to 8. Monserrate was convicted last fall of a misdemeanor assault charge. Gov. David Paterson has already called for a special election on March 16 to fill Monserrate's seat. But attorneys for Monserrate plan to head to court to stave off the move. WNYC’s Ailsa Chang has been on the story and she answers some key questions:

1. So there were five hours of closed-door meetings and then the vote was called. Several senators gave speeches with their votes, including Monserrate. What’d he say?

It was a defiant speech, signaling, as he has all along, that he’s not going down quietly. He first made the basic legal arguments for why the senate couldn’t expel him, arguments he’ll raise in court: that they were denying him due process, that there is no provision in the state constitution that allows them to do this. And ultimately, it’s up to his voters to decide his fate, not this body. This is an issue bigger than him.

He then went on to say he is being singled out and treated differently. There have been other people in Albany who have done bad things and never had to face an expulsion. Like Joe Bruno, who was convicted on federal corruption charges after leaving office. State Senator John Sabini pleaded guilty to drinking and driving. None of them had to face an expulsion resolution.

Monserrate seemed to say, I’m being made the scapegoat so you can all feel better about yourselves.

2. Monserrate was defiant, but wasn’t he also apologetic?

He said he was sorry for any pain he’s caused his colleagues, and asked them to forgive him. Hecompared himself to Jesse Jackson, who, according to Monserrate, once said 'God's not through with me yet.' He’s still working on himself.

3. So he's heading to court to challenge his expulsion. What will he ask for?

His lawyers, Chad Seigel and Norm Siegel (no relation), said they’ll be in court to ask for a temporary restraining order. If granted, that would temporarily prevent the expulsion resolution from being carried out and prevent the governor from calling a special election to replace him. If they get that restraining order, it will return everything back to status quo. That means Monserrate can keep showing up to work, keep voting, keep serving his constituents.

What's ironic is that Monserrate keeps saying that we should leave it up to the voters to decide his fate. But his temporary restraining order, according to his lawyers, would seek to bypass that by preventing a special election.

4. Monserrate also reminded his Democrat colleagues that they’ve got a pretty slim majority right now, so maybe they shouldn’t be too quick to boot him out. Obviously, they did anyway. What does this mean for the balance of power in the Senate?

The Democrats’ already slim 32-to-30 majority gets cut down even further to 31-30. It takes 32 votes to pass any piece of legislation, so now the question is, what can the Senate actually, substantively do while Monserrate is expelled? Also, if there’s a special election and Monserrate is legally challenging his expulsion, how does that pending litigation affect the legitimacy of the person who’s elected to fill Monserrate’s seat?

Consider one other scenario: Let’s say Monserrate actually runs in that special election and wins. Imagine what a wild card he would be then. Remember, this was the guy who defected to the Republicans last summer in a power coup that shifted the balance of power in the Senate. How likely is it that the Democrats would be able to count on his support after they’ve voted to expel him?

There's a steady drumbeat from political leaders in Queens to replace Monserrate with someone else, even if Monserrate runs for re-election. All three state Assemblymen who represent voters in his Senatorial district want him out of office. One of them, Jose Peralta, declared months ago that he'll be running against Monserrate, whether it's in a special election or the fall election.