“Full steam ahead, never look back, because there ain’t nothing there for us!” yelps Hiram Monserrate, bounding up 96th Street in Corona, Queens. Supporters trail him in the shadow of LeFrak City, the neighborhood’s monolithic housing complex. He salutes a fellow veteran, schmoozes in a laundromat, and swaggers on the pavement, resembling someone’s Platonic ideal of a flesh-pressing local pol, his tie bright red, his suit rumpled black, his dress shoes long beat-up.
You almost forget that he went to prison for 21 months for steering more than $100,000 in government funds to a nonprofit and diverting the money to his campaigns. That he became the first elected official in 97 years to be expelled from New York’s state senate, after he slashed his girlfriend in the face with a broken glass during a fight.
“I paid the price for that, I apologized for that,” Monserrate tells the Voice over an iced coffee at a local Dunkin’ Donuts. “You can’t judge someone for an incident that occurred in their lives and try to use that incident to diminish them for the rest of their lives. None of us can live in the past.”
Monserrate is running for the City Council seat he held from 2002 through 2008, when he won a bid for state senate and his life began to unravel. The slashing incident occurred in late 2008, and his senate colleagues voted to expel him in 2010. He lost subsequent campaigns for his old senate seat and an assembly seat. In 2012, he was sentenced to two years in prison on those federal corruption charges.
Yet last year, Monserrate nearly won a race for district leader, an unpaid party post. It affirmed, for him at least, that enough people wanted him back.
“I find it interesting that people who don’t live in this community, who never confronted any of the social issues that we confront in this community, have an opinion,” he says. “More than half the crowd out there [at a campaign event about a polling site being moved from LeFrak] were women, if you noticed. The women in this community who actually know me, who know what I’ve done, support me.”
To what extent voters in East Elmhurst and Corona can stomach Monserrate’s redemption tale will determine whether a man who has spent time behind bars can return to City Hall. That he’d be replacing a woman, and a former protégée, in Councilmember Julissa Ferreras-Copeland — she’s not seeking re-election to move to Maryland with her family — is galling for some progressives.
“A man who slices a woman’s face is not a person who deserves to be a community leader, much less an elected leader,” says Sonia Ossorio, the president of the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter.
Monserrate, who once briefly caucused with conservative Republicans in the senate, professes to be a populist, calling himself the Bernie Sanders of the district. The 21st Council District is largely Hispanic, with a sizable African-American population clustered in LeFrak City and East Elmhurst, where Monserrate, whose background is Puerto Rican, has a significant following.
“Many voters are willing to give Hiram a second chance,” says one Queens operative unaffiliated with the candidates and — like many — wary of Monserrate. “I’m very concerned about Hiram running a grassroots campaign. It’s very effective. Moya is running a top-down campaign.”
Moya is Francisco Moya, a bushy-bearded 43-year-old state assembly member looking to switch jobs. Moya is the candidate of the major labor unions, the Queens Democratic Party, and almost every establishment force in the city. Moya is not the only Monserrate opponent in the race — three lesser-known candidates are running — but he is the most potent. He has already faced off against Monserrate once, winning his assembly seat in a 2010 showdown, and has almost $90,000 in the bank, compared to Monserrate’s roughly $30,000, though both could qualify for public matching funds.
“He’s the only one who believes he can win — you’ve lost three times in a row,” Moya says of Monserrate. “To me, redemption is, you go into a group that has young adults, troubled youth, and talk about the ill effects domestic violence has on our communities. You have a town hall meeting and apologize.”Moya adds, “I’m all for second chances. He’s not looking for a second chance. He’s looking to boost his own political ego.”
What Moya hasn’t done is win support from local elected officials. Ferreras-Copeland, who declined to comment for this story, has not weighed in on Moya, who ran against her for City Council in 2009. State Senator Jose Peralta, who is feuding with the Queens machine after joining a group of GOP-aligned Democrats in Albany, has a longtime consultant, Gregory Petzold, who donated $1,000 to Monserrate.
Monserrate is also counting on the enthusiastic backing of Bertha Lewis, the former ACORN leader, founder of the Black Institute, and prominent city activist. Lewis shocked plenty of people when she announced her support for Monserrate, but she argued he’d been a better councilmember than Ferreras-Copeland, who was tasked with negotiating the redevelopment of the area’s eternal real estate battleground, Willets Point.
“Either you believe people have paid their dues and they have a right to be full citizens again and be productive, or you don’t,” Lewis says. “Moya never went to Willets Point until last week. Moya don’t know nothing.”
Nestled next to Citi Field, the home of the Mets, the 62-acre expanse of Willets Point until recently teemed with auto repair shops and scrapyards, many owned and operated by Latino immigrants. The city never bothered to pave roads or install a functioning sewer system. For outsiders, or well-heeled fans taking in a ballgame, the neighborhood has amounted to an alien eyesore.
In 2008, Michael Bloomberg appeared to be on the verge of remaking Willets Point in his image of the city, envisioning housing, most of it market-rate, and a mix of hotels, retail outlets, office space, and a park. Monserrate, then the city councilmember, reached a deal with the mayor on a mixed-use development with about a third of the proposed 5,500 units of housing designated “affordable.”
But lawsuits against the city’s seizure of land by eminent domain slowed the project. In 2012, Bloomberg tapped Related Companies and Sterling Equities — the real estate firm run by Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, the Mets’ owner and president, respectively — to build a megamall on Citi Field’s city-owned parking lots, with parking to be shifted to Willets Point.
In 2013, just before Bill de Blasio took office as mayor, the City Council approved repurposing Willets Point as parking. The megamall would be left to the courts, after Queens state senator Tony Avella and various civic groups and local property owners challenged the city’s contention that despite the lots’ sitting on city parkland, the 1961 law allowing the construction of Shea Stadium on parkland would permit them to build without seeking Albany’s permission. This June, the Appeals Court sided with Avella in a 5-1 ruling, effectively killing the project and tossing Willets Point’s fate back to the council.
Moya and Monserrate have remarkably similar, if quixotic, ideas for Willets Point. Both want housing that is 100 percent affordable. Both oppose megamalls. Moya wants to couple an unspecified amount of housing with a “world’s market” for locally grown produce. Monserrate is sticking to his 2008 plan of 5,500 housing units — some city-subsidized, in contrast to de Blasio’s preferred tactic of enticing developers to foot the bill. He also wants investments from municipal union pension funds and the private sector to create housing cooperatives. “The city wins because we get the next great community, and it’s affordable,” he says. “The unions win because their membership gets to actually live there.”
Moya is dismissive of Monserrate’s Willets Point record. “The ineptitude of my opponent created this problem,” he says. “We really need to move forward with people who have an actual vision.”
City Hall has been noncommittal, telling the Voice only that it wants affordable housing and no mall. De Blasio, who palled around with Moya at a Corona bocce ball court last month, is expected to back him.
If he defies the odds and returns to power, Monserrate thinks he’ll be accepted, rap sheet and all.
“I’m gonna go in as another member of the City Council who has the power of the vote on the budget and every other item,” he says. “I don’t see how anyone can hold anyone’s past against them.”