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The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

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Complicated Calculus in Race to Replace Monserrate

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union


Current Occupant: The seat became vacant when Democrat Hiram Monserrate won election to the State Senate in November.

Results: According to preliminary results, Julissa Ferreras won the District 21 seat, receiving 2,216 votes to Francisco Moya's 1,191. George Dixon received 781 votes, and Jose Giraldo received 639.

Start with an ambitious councilmember clinching a seat to the State Senate. Add an assault charge. Multiply it by a dysfunctional area nonprofit organization overseen by a former council staffer turned candidate. Divide it by two successful ballot challenges and a monstrous development project.

This equation will confront voters on Feb. 24 when residents of the largely Latino 21st district determine who will represent them in the City Council.

With the domestic violence charges against the former incumbent now state senator, Hiram Monserrate, serving as a backdrop, next week's contest in Queens seems like the quintessential election scenario in New York City: crony versus underdog.

For more, jump here.



George Dixon, 59: Born in Queens, Dixon has been a resident of East Elmhurst for nearly three decades. He is a Vietnam veteran and currently owns Minds of Production, a graphic design production company. He is a former member of Community Board 3 and is a district leader.

Jose Giraldo, 49: Born in Colombia, Giraldo came to the United States at age 19. He is a resident of East Elmhurst and owns an insurance brokerage firm in the district. He is the president of the local chapter of the Lions' Club, former president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Queens and chairman of the New York State Wide Coalition of Hispanic Chambers Of Commerce.

Julissa Ferreras, 32: Born and raised in Corona, Ferreras led an after school program and was former Councilmember Hiram Monserrate's chief of staff for five years. She also served as the New York state director of the National Association for Latino Elected Officials.

Francisco P Moya, 34: Born and raised in Corona, Moya started as a community activist when he was 15 and founded the Corona Gardens Neighborhood Association. He was director of business development at Elmhurst Hospital Center. He has served as an aide to Rep. Nydia Velazquez and to then State Sen. David Paterson. He took a leave of absence from his position in public affairs for Cablevision to run for office.

Campaign Finance Records

George Dixon
Jose Eduardo Giraldo
Julissa Ferreras
Francisco Moya

Links in the News:

A Vote for the Future: Endorsement of Julissa Ferreras, El Diario, Feb. 13, 2009

Video of Francisco Moya, NY1, Feb.12, 2009

Video Julissa Ferreras, NY1, Feb. 12, 2009

Four Chase Monserrate Council Seat, Queens Courier, Feb. 12, 2009

Moya Endorsed by Velasquez in Special Election, Queens Ledger, Jan. 23, 2009

City Council Races Heating Up, Daily News, Jan. 19, 2009

Candidates Lining Up to Grab Council Seat, Daily News, Jan. 5, 2009

The favorite -- Julissa Ferreras, who is Monserrate's former chief of staff -- faces her strongest challenge from community organizer and former State Senate bureaucrat Francisco Moya. Jose Eduardo Giraldo, who is hinging his candidacy on his Colombian roots and business acumen, and George Dixon, the only non-Latino in the race and a district leader, have both mounted less competitive campaigns.

Though this special election has already seen its fair share of controversy, all of the candidates recognize that the district, which stretches from Corona to Elmhurst and includes LaGuardia Airport, faces significant challenges: overdevelopment, a loss of jobs, the construction of Willets Point and the closures of nearby hospitals.

Someone will have to try to fix them.

The Cast of Characters

Center stage in an auditorium at the Langston Hughes Library in the center of this northern Queens district, four candidates extolled their platforms Thursday night.

Dixon, dressed in a beige suit, was up first. He led with his experience as a district leader and three decades of residence in the neighborhood. Concern over what many see as district's overdevelopment also characterized his stump speech, which is rooted on the slogan "United for Change."

Moya followed. His platform: He started out as a community organizer at the age of 15 on the same streets of Corona. He coupled that stint with tenures in national and state government, first as an aide to several congressmembers, including Rep. Nydia Velazquez, then as the top aide to then-State Sen. David Paterson until 2007. Moya has friends in high places.

Calling the district a "rough diamond," Giraldo trumpeted his lack of an agenda or political connections. He answers to no one, he contends, with a wide smile across his full face. Giraldo's mantra: "I'm from the community. I'm for the community." His reception from the half-filled room was warm.

Ferreras rounded out the pack, hinging her experience on her time as director of an after-school program, state director of the National Association for Latino Elected Officials and chief of staff to Monserrate. She can hit the ground running -- no tutorials required -- she said.

On myriad issues, the candidates could have presented their stances in unison. Round after round, the four -- all registered Democrats, though, the law requires special elections technically be nonpartisan -- ticked off their goals and stances.

Dixon, Ferreras and Moya agreed with a specific proposal floated by Council Speaker Christine Quinn last week to raise the city's income tax in several increments for those who make more than $300,000. Part of that proposal would also do away with the income tax for those making less than $46,000. (See related story.)

"A little bit more in everyone's check really makes a difference," said Ferreras. "It's not about Wall Street. It's about Main Street. It's about Northern Boulevard. It's about Roosevelt Avenue."

Each said in these difficult times, they would try to use discretionary funds to save cultural offerings or other threatened programs. Moya and Ferreras said they support mayoral control of education, but think parents must become more involved in school governance and the administration must be held accountable. Dixon said he supports "family control."

Moya and Ferreras said they do not support tolling the East River crossings.

Small business development was also key to the conversation, including getting local residents jobs on area projects.

"We're going to face some tough economic times, yes," said Moya. But, he added, "The economic backbone to our community is when small businesses thrive."

Differing on Development

Not all of their campaign promises are identical.

Take Willets Point -- the major development of 61 acres near Citi Field now largely occupied by auto body shops. The project will bring a new convention center, hotel and mixed income housing. It would also displace scores of businesses.

Though the City Council has already approved Willets Point, it remains quite controversial. Given the economy, its fate is largely up in the air.

Dixon charged that the city had not done a full analysis on the impact the development would have on Corona and Elmhurst. In the future, Dixon said, he would like to get the community more involved in development before it has been etched in stone.

Both Giraldo and Moya endorsed the project from the get go. Ferreras, like her former boss, opposed the project until days before it was approved. She attributed her criticism to a lack of affordable housing, which, she says, was remedied by the final agreement.

On other development fronts, the candidates expressed concern on the alleged overdevelopment of certain areas. Moya said as councilmember he would work to downzone Corona to avoid out-of-scale development. Dixon said he would like to preserve the district's historical character.

Ferreras, who is close to the city's unions, said she would ensure projects were contracted to organized labor, which, she said, benefits the whole city.

Giraldo, who runs an insurance brokerage firm and is the former president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Queens, said he would get the largest area stakeholders, including the Mets and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to contribute to the community to help boost small business and area development.

"We need small businesses," Giraldo, who characterizes his relationship with the area's unions as antagonistic, said. "We need to get our fair share." The audience cheered.

Health and Crime

Dixon, who owns a local production and graphic design company, also said he would attempt to boost the area's medical services, especially for seniors, if he were elected.

"That's one of the things that I really feel strong about, preserving our medical services," said Dixon. "Nursing home facilities, they are operating on a shoestring. I should probably say on dental floss."

The district hosts one of the largest public hospitals in the city, Elmhurst Hospital Center. Several private hospitals, one a block away from the district's border, are slated to close, leading several candidates to express concern that Elmhurst could be overwhelmed. Moya, who helped set up some of Elmhurst's clinics, said he has the state connections to help boost funding to the area's medical facilities.

On crime, Dixon said he would offer anonymity to those who can provide information to police on gun cries. Giraldo would like to set up a blog to allow people to report area crime, while Moya suggested working with federal representatives to crack down on gun trafficking. Ferreras said she would work to take back Roosevelt Avenue, one of the district's main thoroughfares, from gangs and prostitutes.

Politics and Personalities

Beyond their policy stances, Ferreras has been criticized for ties to an area nonprofit, Libre, where she was the voluntary chair, both while she worked for Monserrate and after she left the district office. Monserrate gave approximately $400,000 of discretionary funding to the group -- allocations, according to reports in the New York Times, which were mismanaged.

Ferreras said as voluntary chair she was not responsible for the group's day-to-day bookkeeping, thus cannot be blamed for the group's financial failure. She said she was willing to answer any questions about her involvement and has not been approached by any authorities regarding Libre.

So far, despite the controversy over Libre, Ferreras appears to be the frontrunner with Moya not far behind.

Ferreras certainly has the lead in money. According to the Campaign Finance Board, Ferreras has received $64,154 in private donations and $75,742 in public matching funds. She has spent $63,441 as of the last filing statement.

Moya is in second place, with $50,298 raised privately and $53,620 in public funding. He has spent nearly $25,000.

Giraldo raised $43,506 privately, received $58,719 in public funds and has spent $31,612.

Dixon brings up the pack with $18,595 raised privately, $37,512 in public funds and has spent $17,319.

Money is not the only factor at play. Race could shift the political tide as well. Over the last several decades, say candidates, the demographics of the neighborhood have shifted - with Latinos now the majority of residents. According to the 2000 census, the district is about 68 percent Latino, 12 percent Asian, 10.7 percent black and 6.5 percent white.

Monserrate was the first Latino to be elected in Queens. Party officials could want to keep the seat in Latino hands.

As for endorsements, Ferreras has racked up most of the union endorsements in the area and has garnered support from 15 City Council members. Dixon has received endorsements from the borough president and Assemblymember Jeffrion L. Aubry. Moya has been endorsed by Velazquez and by the Manhattan-based Stonewall Democrats. Giraldo said he hasn't been endorsed by anyone and is proud of it, confirming he has no political ties.

**When first published, this story said Libre was run by a former council staffer, in reference to Julissa Ferreras. The Ferreras campaign says she just oversaw the group.

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The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

A Broken Election System

By Puja Kumar

9 September 02

Before any Election Day, Richard Wagner likes to say, election workers all say the same prayer: "Please let it be a landslide." That is because Wagner, the head of the union representing election workers, knows that in a lopsided victory, nobody looks too closely at the voting process.

But in 2000, the race in one Manhattan State Senate district was so tight that it took longer to resolve than the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Then in the 2001 runoff for the Democratic nominee for mayor, the Board of Elections somehow counted the total number of votes twice, leading to inaccurate reporting of the inflated figure and a delay in the official results.

And every year, in polling places throughout the city, chaos prevails because voters do not know where they should vote, and no one can direct them. When machines break down, voters must stand in lines snaking out the door while waiting for repair crews to arrive.

This year promises to offer the same kind of mess-ups. Already the Board of Elections has become ensnared in a dispute over registering new members of the Independence Party. Faced with registrants named "Cinderella" and "Romeo Shagwell," the board conceded that a third of the 18,000 new members might be fraudulent. But despite that -- and charges by gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano that registrations were part of a scheme hatched by Governor George Pataki to keep Golisano from getting the Independence Party nomination -- the board refused to take any action.

New York voters tend to blame the long lines, ancient voting machines, untrained poll workers and other problems on poll workers or the local Board of Elections. But the state government holds a great deal of power over how local elections are conducted throughout New York -- including who gets to work at the polls, the type of voting machine used and the overall structure of each local board of elections. Real reform would require changing New York State's election law and the state constitution, as well as overcoming decades-old political traditions.


The Governor's Task Force on Election Modernization describes New York as having "a decentralized election structure." This means that in New York, as in most other states, the State Board of Elections oversees each local board of elections.

Those boards are responsible for day-to-day operations and pay the expenses of conducting elections, but they must follow state election procedures. Even in presidential elections, the federal government has left the costs of administering elections to the states, which in turn have delegated it to the county level. "Election administration, until now, has been funded primarily at the local government level," wrote Roy G. Saltman, a consultant on election policy and technology.

Having both local and state control clouds the issue of accountability and responsibility. Confusion arises over who is in charge of what. For example, the local board hires, trains and assigns poll workers, but the state says that half those workers must be Democrats and half Republicans. Members of other political parties need not apply. Each local board has to buy, maintain and store its voting machines, but the machines must meet state standards.

Because it is responsible to the state, and not to the city, the city Board of Elections, has occasionally "used its independence to avoid accountability," according to a 2001 report of the Mayor's Task Force on Elections, created by Rudolph Giuliani.


The city's 40-tear-old mechanical lever voting machines often break down or jam. The machines are no longer manufactured so that when one of them jams, or a lever fails to operate, another machine may have to be cannibalized to repair it. "In all honesty, the complement of 6,800 machines should be retired and replaced," the New York City Board of Elections 2000 annual report said.

In 1986, New York State mandated that only machines that are approved and certified by the State Board of Elections can be used. It can take as long as a couple of years for the state to certify a new voting machine. And so, with rapid advances in technology, New York runs the risk of always being left behind. In response, the Governor's Task Force on Election Modernization has recommended that the process of approval and certification be "streamlined."

The state requires that the machines present what is called a "full face ballot." Every candidate for every office and all proposals have to be displayed on a single page. New York has eight political parties, and in New York City, each candidate's name and party has to be translated into Spanish and Chinese. Cramming all this information on a single sheet can make for a bewildering ballot. In addition, the requirement for the "full face ballot" prevents New York from using a touch screen machine, similar to an automatic teller machine that lists races one at a time.


The two major parties -- the only parties that matter to the Board of Elections -- have primary responsibility for recruiting poll inspectors. An equal number of Democrats and Republicans must work at each poll site. Both parties traditionally turn to their party faithful to work on Election Day. Applicants who come through the political parties have first choice in work site assignments and training sessions and are difficult to remove or sanction when they make errors, because party leaders protect them. Some other poll workers, such as interpreters and information clerks, don't have to be registered with one of the two major political parties. However, these workers do not process voters.

The Board of Elections needs 30,000 poll workers for each election event (primaries, any runoffs and general elections). Almost every year, the board has vacancies for from 4,000 to 7,000 poll workers. Elizabeth Rose Daly, a Democratic committeewoman and district leader in Brooklyn, says people today are less willing than they once were to take a couple of days off during the work week and put in long hours on Election Day. Daly, who believes the current recruitment system has not been effective, suggests that the board seek out New Yorkers who have flexible schedules. She also thinks allowing poll inspectors to work a split shift, as opposed to a full 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. day, would help.

Last year, Citizens Union Foundation launched a drive to recruit students and others as poll workers. After the election, the good government group surveyed the poll worker recruits and found that the Board of Elections had never contacted many. This suggests that the board does not handle poll worker applicants efficiently.

Some observers say the requirement for an equal number of Democrats and Republicans helps guards against fraud. But the balance poses problems in New York City because, in 2000, there were 2,475,627 registered Democrats but only 472,092 registered Republicans. As a result, poll workers who are actually Democrats are sometimes converted into a Republican just for the day.

To compensate for the shortages, Daly the district leader in Brooklyn found that the board "hires quite a few people on Election Day itself, despite the board's stated opposition to hiring people who haven't been trained."


The 316 year-round employees of the Board of Elections are also equally balanced between the Republicans and Democrats, since nobody outside the two parties can get hired, except in technical positions such as webmaster.

If the executive director of the board is a Democrat, the deputy must be a registered Republican. This equal division is followed at every level from the commissioners to the temporary staff. To maintain this balance, the board often hires people based on their party affiliation rather than their skills. It is a "system driven by patronage rather than merit," said Marina Sheriff, the legislative director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "As we saw during the [2000] controversy in Florida, a system controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties also may not sustain the confidence of voters in a disputed election."

Each of the city's five boroughs is represented by a Democratic and Republican commissioner who together make up the governing body of the New York City Board of Elections. The commissioners are nominated by party leaders and appointed by the City Council, which invariably follows the recommendations of local party leaders.

To have real reform, Sheriff says, "you must replace a system dedicated to maintaining a balance of power between two parties with one dedicated to empowering the voters of this state."

In November, Citizens Union Foundation will play host to a forum along with other civic organizations to consider ways to overhaul the election process in New York. As Ed Davis, an election law specialist with Common Cause has said, the election boards "won't be fixed just by money. The system itself has to be fixed."

To accomplish this, a statewide campaign must be waged to get reforms through a state legislature, whose members were, after all, elected through the very system that is so desperately in need of repair.

Puja Kumar is a former issues associate with Citizens Union Foundation who worked on voting reform.


See also: "Registering More Voters" by David R. Jones

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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