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Senate Ponders What to Do About Monserrate

by David Howard King, Oct 23, 2009

It could have been simple. Justice William Erlbaum could have found Sen. Hiram Monserrate guilty of a felony and Monserrate would have been booted from the Senate seat he was elected to almost a year ago.

It's no secret that a number of high-ranking Democratic Senators had their fingers crossed for a felony conviction. Instead, Monserrate was convicted of a misdemeanor assault charge, making his ouster not automatic and leaving his fate as a senator in the hands of his colleagues.

Monserrate was charged with two felony counts for slashing his girlfriend Karla Giraldo in the face with a broken glass and then forcefully dragging her through the halls of their apartment building. He passed on having a trial by jury reportedly due to concerns that the juror pool would already be biased against him.

That roll of the dice paid off for the state senator for Queens -- not for his Democratic colleagues. Now a committee of his colleagues is considering Monserrate's fare but no one sees the issue being resolved easily or without rancor.

Condemning Monserrate

A cascade of press releases calling for Monserrate's resignation followed his conviction. The first came from Democrat Sen. Liz Krueger. "I believe Hiram Monserrate should not remain in the Senate, and for the sake of his constituents, the institution of the Senate and the Democratic Party he should resign immediately based on the seriousness of his violent crime," read the statement.

Other Democratic senators who called for Monserrate to resign included Bill Perkins, Neil Breslin, David Valesky, Darrel Aubertine and Suzi Oppenheimer. In the face of the opposition, Sen. Ruben Diaz defended Monserrate and called those who attacked Monserrate "racist."

Breslin said that he had concerns that the factionalism of the Democratic Senate would be aggravated by calls for Monserrate's resignation but said, "You can't not speak out when its right."

As the days have gone on, though, some Hispanic politicians have called for Monserrate to leave office. On Thursday, Assemblymember Adriano Espaillat said Monserrate should resign, indicating this would be in the best interest of Latino New Yorkers.

"New York is grappling with an economy in distress and the legislature needs to be able to focus on these problems. The Hispanic community in particular is feeling the devastation of the downturned economy and our leaders need to work full time on creating jobs, protecting our healthcare and improving our schools. ... Sen. Monserrate is no longer able to effectively serve his constituents, or the people of this state, " his statement said.

Earlier City Councilmembers Annabel Palma and Melissa Mark-Viverito said Monserrate's remaining in office would be "a disservice to his district and his constituents."

The chorus of voices calling for Monserrate's resignation or expulsion grew to include, New York State Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs and U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer as well as City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. and Councilmembers Bill de Blasio and John Liu, all candidates for citywide office next month. Liu originally wavered saying at a debate last Friday that Monserrate's appeal should run its course before any final decision was made. He reversed that position Wednesday.

How to Get Rid of a Senator

Legislative law states that "each house has the power to expel any of its members, after the report of a committee to inquire into the charges against him shall have been made." The law is not specific as to what sort of conduct would warrant expulsion.

Last week Senate Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson empanelled a committee of four Democrats and four Republicans to decide whether and how to punish Monserrate.

"As a father with daughters I am not only angry, but I'm pissed off," Sampson said at the press conference. "But as a leader I cannot let my personal feelings supersede the individual rights of each member."

Democrat Eric Schneiderman, considered to be Sampson's top advisor, was named chair of the committee while Andrea Stewart Cousins, Toby Ann Stavisky, Diane Savino and Ruth Hassell Thompson were appointed to serve on the committee. Republican Minority Leader Dean Skelos appointed Catharine Young, Andrew Lanza, John Flanagan and James Alesi. Five women sit on the panel charged with deciding Monserrate's fate.

Monserrate has issued a statement pledging full cooperation.

"In response to today's announcement of the formation of a State Senate Review Committee, Senator Monserrate and his attorneys expect to cooperate fully," the statement reads. "Senator Monserrate respects Conference Leader John Sampson's and the Democratic Conference decision to review the matter."

But privately Monserrate supporters floated the idea that the Senate committee might not have the right to punish Monserrate, because the alleged slashing took place in December -- when Monserrate was still a member of the City Council. Schneiderman told Liz Benjamin that his committee "will consider any precedent or arguments submitted by Mr. Monserrate and his counsel."

Diaz continued to stand by Monserrate saying Senate leaders are out for revenge against Monserrate for his involvement in the June coup against the Democratic leadership. He also said the panel was "racist" because it has no Latino members. "I believe that the real intention of this "independent and impartial" committee is to get even with Senator Monserrate for what he did to the Democrats this past June and to use the Republicans who have been praying for such an opportunity to settle the score with Senator Monserrate," said Diaz in a statement.

The Best Revenge?

Revenge may not be Democrats would use to describe their true motivations in wanting to oust Monserrate -- some of them have privately called it "progress."

Democratic leaders know that having a man convicted of domestic violence in their caucus can only make things harder for them during the 2010 elections. Being down one vote until a special election is held to replace Monserrate won't be easy. But in private a number of veteran Democratic legislators say that their majority is already compromised. They have no hope of pushing through a progressive agenda until their majority becomes stronger or legislators like Sen. Pedro Espada and Monserrate are replaced.

"We are now still struggling to get our sea legs and I don't necessarily believe we will have the combination of members of the senate we need until after the 2010 election, where I believe we will have some additional Democrats and some different Democrats," Krueger recently told Jimmy Vielkind of the Politicker.

It may actually take some time for the committee to rule on Monserrate. Senate spokesperson Austin Shafran said that while the committee "can begin to examine precedent, evidence, the Senate rules and the law in preparation for a full and fair investigation," it won't actually have its full investigative powers until a resolution passes the Senate by 32 votes. And Shafran was noncommittal about when the Senate may return to session to vote on that or anything else.

Paterson wants the full legislature back to address the state's budget deficit in the next two weeks. Shafran noted that the Senate is holding hearings on the budget deficit reduction package across the state in the coming weeks.

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