A Safe Haven for Hiram Monserrate

Shunned in Albany, State Senator Continues to Enjoy Support in Queens

The New York State Senate expelled Hiram Monserrate, a Queens democrat, on February 9, after his conviction last fall of misdemeanor assault against his girlfriend. It was the first time since the 1920s that the State Senate ousted one of its members. The following article was posted in December, the day that Monserrate was sentenced.

By José Bayona
Click here to read José Bayona’s article on Hiram Monserrate from the May 2009 issue of Dollars & Sense.

State Senator Hiram Monserrate after his conviction in State Supreme Court in Queens in October. Among his outspoken supporters is Marta Flores-Vazquez, on steps in red shirt and blue jacket.
Photograph by Javier Castaño
     State Senator Hiram Monserrate after his conviction in State Supreme
Court in Queens in October. Among his outspoken supporters is
Marta Flores-Vazquez, on steps in red shirt and blue jacket.

State Senator Hiram Monserrate, sentenced Friday to three years of probation for misdemeanor assault of his girlfriend, has been sharply denounced by women’s organizations and political leaders. Yet he retains the support of many residents of his Queens district – and, remarkably – of some local women’s groups devoted to opposing domestic violence.

At the Friday morning sentencing a sobbing Monserrate apologized to the court and proclaimed his love for Karla Giraldo, his girlfriend and victim. State Supreme Court Justice William Erlbaum also sentenced Monserrate to 250 hours of community service and 55 hours of counseling and fined him $1,000.

Among Monserrate’s supporters at the sentencing hearing were the leaders of several Latino women’s groups from Queens, who had often attended the trial. Monserrate, a former police officer and City Councilman, was convicted in a non-jury trial that ended in October.

Like many of his constituents from the 13th Senate District, which covers Jackson Heights, Corona, East Elmhurst, and Elmhurst, these women insist that “racism” and biased reporting by the media are the main reasons for Monserrate’s troubles.

Martha Flores-Vazquez, a Democratic Queens district leader and founder of Community Prevention Alternatives, an organization that works towards the elimination of domestic violence, said: “There is no evidence, no history of domestic violence,” adding, “There is a Latino State Senator and look how he is mistreated.”

When Erlbaum convicted Monserrate of misdemeanor assault – and acquitted him of several felonies –he said “only two people” would ever know what actually happened that night.” Both Monserrate and Giraldo contend the injuries were caused by an accident. In announcing his verdict Erlbaum said, “The state has clearly proven he did indeed cause injury to Karla Giraldo without a reasonable doubt. She’s injured and bruised, black and blue marks. There’s skin tearing. There’s already injuries and a lot of blood.”

In the aftermath of the attack, which left Giraldo with cuts that required 40 stitches, Monserrate confronted a Special Committee of Inquiry in Albany—the first such committee convened by the Senate in close to 100 years—which is expected to decide his status in the Senate in the next weeks. He also faces pressure to resign from some political allies as well as foes, and from numerous organizations devoted to combating violence against women.

But if Monserrate’s welcome in Albany or local Democratic Party circles is uncertain, on the streets where Monserrate began his political career more than a decade ago, he is still embraced by his Hispanic constituents, who include immigrants from Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Ecuador. Like Flores-Vazquez, other heads of women’s groups in his district have close ties to Monserrate. Over the years, many of those now coming to his defense have received substantial funding from the political organization controlled by Monserrate, who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents.

Another ardent Monserrate supporter is Haydee Zambrana, the executive director of Latin Women in Action, an organization based in Corona that offers support for domestic violence victims, among other services. “We don’t know what really happened inside that apartment last December,” says Zambrana. “The American media has overblown this case. The judge’s verdict was not guilty.”

Last month, Zambrana sent news organizations a statement, accusing the English-speaking media of bias against Latino politicians. “Are they doing the same against Afro-American politicians? So, what is the standard?” she wrote. In fact, The New York Times has conducted a months-long investigation of possible financial improprieties and ethics violations of Rep. Charles Rangel, the powerful Democratic Congressman from Harlem.

Zambrana has known Monserrate since 1999, when he was a Queens district leader. She supported his campaigns for the City Council and State Senate. Latina Women in Action received $50,000 in public funds in 2006, according to Zambrana, through Safe Horizon, a national organization that provides support for domestic violence’s victims; and in 2007 she “believes it was the same amount.” Safe Horizon, meanwhile has published a statement on its website urging “the New York State Senate to review the case and to take all appropriate action.” This is not a case of giving a “favor for a favor,” contends Zambrana. “I have not received any funds in the last two years. “He has done a lot for our community since he was councilman. We cannot be unfair. The community identifies with him; he helps everybody.”

Monserrate also enjoys the support of The Rev. Dr. Andy Torres, the president of the Association of Hispanic Evangelical Ministers of Queens and pastor of the Hispanic Church of the Community in Long Island City. He has been Monserrate’s spiritual adviser for many years, and says he hopes, eventually, to officiate at a Giraldo- Monserrate wedding – though they have not yet announced plans to marry. “It was a difficult experience, both suffered, but they can rebuild their love and be together again,” says Torres.

Giraldo, who testified this morning at Monserrate’s sentencing hearing and asked that Erlbaum lift the restraining order against Monserrate, says she wants to marry him. However, Erlbaum is keeping the restraining order in effect for now.

The relationship between Torres and Monserrate isn’t purely spiritual. Torres’s wife, the Rev. Nancy Torres, is director of Community Center in Action, a program that prepares permanent residents for the citizenship test and offers English and computer classes in Long Island City. When Monserrate was a councilman, he channeled public funds to the program. “In 2007 and 2008 we got $30,000 each year through the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development,” Nancy Torres acknowledges, adding that the funds “had nothing to do with the church.”

In sharp contrast to his support among local women’s groups, Monserrate has been vilified by many other women’s organizations. One sharp critic is Marcia Pappas, president of the New York State National Organization for Women, based in Albany. “I am very shocked and ashamed that Justice Erlbaum only found Monserrate guilty of misdemeanor,” she says. “However, we have to work with it. It’s a terrible outcome for women.”

Pappas expects the Inquire Committee in Albany to remove Monserrate because “there is no place in our society for domestic violence, and having a perpetrator there will send a very bad message to the women of the State.” She also thinks that some Latino women organizations in Queens have their own reasons for supporting Monserrate.

“I don’t know them and I cannot say why they would defend an abuser except that they had personal contact with him,” says Pappas. “He is an official and has some control over communities and possibly the funding they get.”

It may be too soon to count Monserrate out. For now, the Democrats need him in the State Senate to maintain their one-vote majority. The Queens Democratic Party is supporting Jose Peralta, a State Congressman who represents Jackson Heights, for Monserrate’s seat in next year’s primary. However, Monserrate says he will run as an independent, and he may win. During his first run for City Council, thanks to the backing of the Hispanic community in Queens, he beat the Queens Democratic machine candidate.

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  1. [...] By José Bayona Originally published in the May 2009 issue of Dollars & Sense. Click here to read José Bayona’s follow-up, posted December 5, 2009. [...]

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