Two years ago, Hiram Monserrate went through a large apartment building in Corona, trying to register voters and get people to fill out their census forms. He was leaving the building, or so he thought, when he noticed that a Dumpster outside was full of blank census forms. Muttering, “Here we go again,” Monserrate turned around, knocked on the super’s door and deputized the handyman to make sure every tenant in the building got counted and registered.
Lots of aspiring politicians are dogged about working constituents one-on-one, but Monserrate hangs his entire operation on canvassing the neighborhood. While his rivals for Corona’s City Council seat court the leaders of the local Democratic machine, Monserrate, a seasoned renegade at the age of 33, hasn’t bothered–and so far, he hasn’t needed to: Last November, he ousted a longtime party stalwart from a Queens district leadership, winning what is usually a patronage seat on the strength of his door-to-door campaigning.
But bucking the Queens machine is nothing compared to Monserrate’s crusade against the New York Police Department and its blue wall of silence. Monserrate broke the NYPD’s rule forbidding officers to speak publicly about department affairs without permission. When the department reprimanded him, he sued and won.
Monserrate first made citywide headlines in 1994, when he criticized the NYPD as senior vice president of the Latino Officers Association. Speaking from the steps of City Hall at an LOA press conference, he denounced the killing of Anthony Baez by fellow officer Francis X. Livoti–violating a policeman’s most sacred unwritten rule, the one against publicly criticizing a brother officer. For Monserrate, that code of silence let powerful people run roughshod over others.
“I identified with Anthony Baez,” he says now. “He was killed by an officer with a history of complaints and incidents with supervisors, who always got away with it because he was hooked [connected].”
Soon after, Monserrate and other LOA members started getting death threats and nasty phone calls. “Wanted” posters with their faces on them began appearing in precincts. Monserrate, who had been on the job for eight years, was denied overtime and days off and transferred for no reason from Bayside’s 111th Precinct to Harlem’s 26th. Once, he came into work to find “Mons is a rat” scrawled on his locker.
So, with the Latino Officers Association, he sued. Repeatedly. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint for retaliation netted Monserrate $107,973 in damages and a pension. Other LOA lawsuits included a class-action lawsuit against the NYPD for unequal punishment of Latino officers, a free speech lawsuit for the right to march in parades, in uniform, under the LOA banner–even a lawsuit forcing the city to recognize the LOA. (Grudgingly, it did.) And they challenged the NYPD policy requiring officers to seek permission before speaking out about police matters.
“The Baez case was definitely a turning point in my life,” says Monserrate. “It’s probably when I started subconsciously thinking about politics.”
Monserrate hit the political scene last November, beating overwhelming odds to become the area’s Democratic district leader. He defeated incumbent James Lisa, whose father and brother had held the post (there’s even a local community center and a memorial square named after the father, Joseph Lisa). The victory made Monserrate the first Latino ever to win a contested election for any city or state post in Queens.
But now the bar is higher. District 21, which includes Corona, East Elmhurst and parts of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, is 70 percent Latino, but it has the lowest voter turnout–around 30 percent–of any district in the borough. And though 70 percent Latino, this area has never elected a paid Latino official. Monserrate wants to be the first.
Monserrate’s three main rivals, including his old nemesis Lisa, each come from one of the area’s demographic power bases–Ecuadorian, African-American and Italian–and have endorsements from the borough’s Democratic powers.
But for once, this race may not hinge on who gets the nod from the party machine. ‘It used to be that the Dems would get behind somebody, and you could forget about it,” says George Delis, a veteran of Queens politics who is mulling a City Council race in a nearby district. “But they’re waiting now, and the longer they wait, the less influence they’ll have.”
That’s good for Monserrate, who won’t be asking for party endorsements and wouldn’t get them if he did. Likening traditional party politics to the NYPD, he explains: “Both have the old boy network. There’s more exclusion than inclusion, and the structure is about obedience, instead of debating and analyzing what should be.”
Rob MacKay is a reporter/editor for the Times/Record of Queens.