Against All Odds, Monserrate Still In The Fight

The 39th district in Queens, NY - Photo: Catalina Jaramillo

Election flyers in the window of a restaurant in the 39th district in Queens, NY. (Photo: Catalina Jaramillo)

From the outside Francisco Moya’s effort to represent the 39th Assembly district in Queens looks as easy as getting a carnitas taco in Jackson Heights.

His contender in the Democratic Primary, Hiram Monserrate, was recently convicted of domestic assault and expelled from the New York State Senate. Monserrate was also one of the four Democrats who blocked the Senate last summer, a move that many of his fellow party members won’t forgive.  On top of that, he campaigned saying he supported gay marriage, but ended up voting against it.

Moya, on the other hand, has a clean record and all the endorsements that any candidate could dream of, including a big group of female Democratic elected officials (he is even supported by City Councilmember Julissa Ferreras, who once opposed him in a race for Council).  As he likes to point out, he’s been working for the community since the age of 15, he grew up in the district and says he will bring back the integrity and dignity that Corona, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst have lost.

Yet, most experts say the race is very close.

“We have to understand that Hiram Monserrate is a candidate that has won (against) great odds in previous elections,” said Carlos Vargas-Ramos, from the Center of Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. Vargas-Ramos says that even though Moya has the support of the Queens political machine, he is not as well known as Monserrate or Jose Peralta who took Monserrate’s seat in the Senate. But Vargas-Ramos does think Monserrate has lost a lot of his old base, particularly within the LGBT community, female voters, and South American immigrants who won’t support him after the violent episode with his girlfriend Karla Giraldo, who is Ecuadorian.

Furthermore, the 39th district has a history of low voter turnout in the elections and even though more than half of the Democratic voters are Hispanics (20,649 of 35,345), only 2,186 voted on average in the three last primaries, according to the Voter Activation Network.

On the streets of the district, most people don’t even know an election is coming next Tuesday, and those who do are divided.  Some vow they will never vote for Monserrate again, but his supporters say everyone makes mistakes and that if his girlfriend forgave him, why shouldn’t they after all he has done for the community?

People in the district say they are worried about how dirty the streets are, the number of street vendors on Roosevelt Avenue and about crime. Orlando Tobón, an important Colombian leader in the district, says another issue is people who are abusing immigrant newcomers. He says fake immigration lawyers, curanderos (local witchdoctors) and even churches are taking money from immigrants and cheating them.

Both Moya and Monserrate have spoken about crime and dirty streets, but the main issues in their campaigns are education, affordable housing, health care, creating new jobs and fighting for immigrant rights.

Tobón thinks a lot of people won’t vote for either candidate because they are tired of the way the Democrats have been ruling the district without responding to its needs. “Should we have to become Republicans to be heard?” he said (which is precisely what Colombian Humberto Suarezmotta, the Republican candidate for the contested seat did) .

Moya says the reason people are not voting is because they are tired of corruption:

“We have two totally different persons here. A person that is corrupt, that represents everything that is wrong with the government right now, that has been expelled… I haven”t even been expelled from a school, I have never been arrested. If you talk with anyone they will tell you that I’ve lived an honest life, that I’m someone who really loves his community.”

Monserrate admits he made a mistake, but he says he is the only one who has really been there for the people. “I had a difficult moment in my personal life, we all make mistakes, but that has nothing to do with my job for the community,” he said.

Radio host Roberto Pérez says Monserrate did a lot of things for the people of the district because he had a lot of resources for a long time. And,  he adds, people don’t forget when someone helped them. But he thinks the negative campaign literature being distributed by Moya’s campaign (and the negative reports in the media) will eventually make the difference in this election, and just as when Peralta won the seat against Monserrate, when more than 15,000 voters turned out, a lot of people will go out and vote against him.

Catalina Jaramillo is a reporter with El DiarioFeet in Two Worlds coverage of the New York Primary is supported, in part, by the New York Community Trust.

AboutCatalina Jaramillo
Catalina Jaramillo is an independent reporter and radio producer living in Philadelphia. For most of her career, she has worked toward social justice, writing about inequality and building real and virtual spaces for people to communicate. She is a freelance correspondent for the Chilean newspaper La Tercera and Qué Pasa magazine, and has filed stories for Al Dia, WHYY, FSRN, El Universal Domingo, VICE México and more. Catalina produced The Time is Now, a Fi2W climate change workshop for immigrant and ethnic media and is part of the Unidos team. She’s also an adjunct assistant professor for the new Spanish concentration at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her @cjaramillo.