Tuesday, March 16, 2010

So, Hiram Monserrate walks into a gay bar... (or why I will vote against him today)

UPDATE 1: "Outsider" tries to influence the vote in Hiram's favor. Homophobic NYS Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. (D-Bronx) seen stumping for Hiram in Jackson Heights.
UPDATE 2: Before losing big to Jose Peralta, Hiram Monserrate uses homophobic appeals to the Muslim community.

Nine years ago, in the late summer of 2001, my partner and I hosted a small fundraiser for a city council candidate seeking to become the first openly gay politician elected from the borough of Queens. The fundraiser was memorable because my partner and I were living in a large studio apartment - no bedrooms, just a studio - and because, by happenstance, the day turned out to be probably the hottest day of the summer. Dozens of people went in and out through that door the whole afternoon and, before you knew it, the apartment felt more like a sauna.
The candidate, Jimmy Van Bramer, would lose that year, coming in second to Helen Sears. It would be eight more years until Jimmy was finally elected to the city council, joining Danny Dromm as one of two openly gay people to be elected to the city council from the borough of Queens for the first time.

That very sweaty fundraiser in 2001 was notable in another way: I believe it was the first time I met Hiram Monserrate. Hiram, at the time, was also running for the city council, and he'd come to my apartment to urge people to donate and vote for Jimmy, an openly gay candidate.

Mind you, Hiram was also there as someone seeking to be the first Latino to ever be elected to the city council from the borough of Queens.

WHAT? Yes! The land of Archie Bunker had never elected an openly gay person to political office at the time, nor had it elected an openly Latino person either. This, despite the fact that certain areas of Queens, and certainly Jackson Heights, Corona, Woodside an Elmhurst, had a huge Latino population who had never been represented by someone from their own background.

There was something else in common back then: Both candidates lacked backing from the Queens Democratic party establishment which, at the time, was not necessarily known as pro-gay or immigrant-friendly.

I wasn't sure what to think of Hiram. He was a former US marine as well as a New York City cop. He was running for the Latino vote in the district and not afraid to endorse an openly gay candidate. But being Latino and pro-gay does not necessarily make a great politician by default and so, I waited.

It didn't take much time. Despite the lack of backing from the Queens Democratic party establishment, Hiram emerged victorious and went to work.

Now, I've never considered myself to be a political 'idolater'. I am often weary of politicians and political parties and do not believe that any one politician in particular will be the Lord savior. But I do have a thing for those who challenge the establishment and shake it up and, in that sense, Hiram fit the bill to a T.

As a councilmember, Hiram almost always did the right thing: He spoke up on immigration rights and introduced bills to protect the privacy of undocumented immigrants; he sought funding for HIV prevention agencies in the borough and throughout the city; he addressed overcrowding in housing and issues related to the explosion in street food vendor stands, he [believe it or not] got funding for anti-domestic violence programs, etc. And, on LGBT rights, while he was not necessarily out there championing them all the time, he certainly seemed to get it, backing the right of same-sex couples to marry as far back as that 2001 race.

In 2002, as a newly elected councilmember, I took Hiram to his first gay bar (if you must know, it was The Music Box, on 74th Street and Broadway in Jackson Heights). I had offered to meet at a straight bar but he insisted on meeting me there to talk politics. I remember the bar being empty except for us, the bartenders and a couple of patrons (it was early in the evening). And I remember one of the patrons sending a drink over to Hiram and him getting all jittery and nervous. "Why did he send me a drink?" he asked. "Maybe he likes you," I said. "Nah, you gotta be kidding," he said. "I'm telling you," I said.

To date, he still believes that I planted the guy at the bar as a joke and told him to send the drink. Truth is, Hiram once got hit on at a gay bar in Queens.

Through the years, I wouldn't say we became personal friends but I certainly can say that we developed a mutual respect. On a couple of occasions Hiram inquired about my political interests and whether I, as an openly gay man, wanted to run for the city council (this was before Jimmy and Danny ran last year). He even nominated me, as an openly gay man, to a local district board (I never ended up joining and I'm glad I didn't).

In 2008, on his last year as a councilmember, Hiram's office called me to ask if I would accept an invite for a public recognition of my work as an LGBT advocate at the city council chamber. In a July day probably as hot and humid as that day in 2001, I proudly accepted the recognition. Among the reasons for giving me the honor, as written on the signed plaque I received? My "passionate fight for the recognition of same-sex partnerships."

That was July 17th, 2008. Twenty months ago.

Then came what you already know: Hiram winning a New York State Senate seat, the girlfriend-bashing incident, the senate coup attempt, and his extremely homophobic strategy to claw back into his Senate seat.

Several gay groups, most prominently Fight Back New York, have been mounting a forceful opposition to Monserrate being elected to the Senate once again. I know a few people involved in that particular effort and have backed them in the weeks since they launched the site.

Members of Queer Rising, on the other hand, coming from Manhattan to Queens to attend a local debate and theatrically 'slashing' their face with red lipstick as Hiram spoke might have played well for the angry gays outside Queens but probably ended up feeding into Hiram's current argument that it's gays from outside the district calling the shots.

Here's the good news: Hiram won't win. His floundering campaign has come down to exploiting homophobia for the few votes he will get, a strategy that might work in the district of one of his closest allies, the homophobic Reverend and State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., but won't work in Queens. Thankfully, Queens doesn't have as strong a network of homophobic churches and, as the annual Queens LGBT Pride Parade shows, it's more open to LGBT communities than other parts of the city.

Here is the bad news, at least on a personal level. As I said, I might not consider myself to idolize political leaders but Hiram, at one point, was my hero. As a Latino political representative he not only broke the mold of other Latino political leaders in the city who are beholden to nepotism, allegiance to stagnant Democratic powers, and run based only on their ethnic identity, he also showed that he could represent the interests of the borough outside his Latino identity. Few will understand the extreme disappointment some of us feel about his latest turns and I told him as much last week when I wrote to him and said I would not be voting for him.

Hiram was adroit at turning adverse political situations in his favor and to outrun any organized effort to run him out of office. The proverbial cat-of-nine-lives. And I loved him for that. But even a cat has only nine lives and Hiram's seem to have expired. As a former sponsor of marriage equality and supporter of domestic anti-violence programs, I know for a fact that many are not only at a loss for his latest reincarnation but also feeling betrayed.

What truly got to my heart was an opinion piece that ran in the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario La Prensa by Hiram's former chief of staff (and current councilmember) Julissa Ferreras. She has certainly been much closer to Hiram and probably owes her political career to him. And yet, she has been front and center in the publicity campaign by Hiram's opponent, José Peralta.

In that March 8 OpEd piece, Julissa writes (my translation):
There are those who will ask how people who were so close to Hiram Monserrate - people such as I - do not back him in these electoral campaign. The reality is that Monserrate is the one who has abandoned us. With his actions as a man and as a legislator, it is Monserrate who has given us his back.
Truer words haven't been said. Then there is this:

If you read this today and live in the 13th Senate District, please vote for anyone else but Hiram. I will be so ever thankful.


libhom said...

Sorry that you had to experience that. It only furthers distrust of politicians.

Ajasen said...

Thanks for posting. I had no idea about his hypocritical past. As for Queer Rising, perhaps they were at fault for not having local LGBT groups at the front of their action? But it was a rather apt bit of political theatre against someone who's trying to make domestic violence into a family value! Thank you Jasckson Heights for spanking Monserrate's ass in the polls!

Scott Rose said...

It's completely valid that when the civil rights of a minority are on the line, other members of the minority from outside the district help to elect the candidate that will establish and protect the civil rights of the minority members within the district. Furthermore, it is completely valid that a convicted domestic violence offender be rebuked from people all over the country, and even from beyond.

Anonymous said...

I grew up and live in Jackson Heights and just like you Andres, I feel extremely disappointed at Hiram. I voted for him, first for city council and then for state senate because I believed he represented JH's values (and as a Latina, I thought it was about time that the hood was represented by a Latino). This is no longer the case. This abusive, homophobic and all round shady little man is not getting one single vote from my household.

I do, however, feel a bit bothered by people from outside the community coming in and getting involved in "our business." Somehow I feel like it should be more organic, or at least have the appearance of being more organic.
Anyhow, I understand that this is how politics works and appreciate the support from outsiders.

Blabbeando said...


I have no problem with people who don't live in the district getting involved with local races. Many of the volunteers for the José Peralta are not from the district and I am certain that Hiram would be glad to take the outside support and funding that José is getting if it were coming his way. There are organizations such as the PAC committee of the NYC chapter of the National Organization for Women who have endorsed Peralta and repudiated Monserrate based on the assault charges against his girlfriend. All of that is valid, as well as members of the gay community rising up against him for his flip-flopping on the marriage issue as well as his embrace of homophobic forces in our community.

On a personal basis - and I am sure there are those in the district who might disagree with me - I do think that the specific intervention I mentioned in which people used lipstick to "slash" their faces as Monserrate spoke during a debate was great in terms of getting attention to Queer Rising and probably provided some catharsis for a lot of the pent-up anger LGBT folk throughout New York feel towards Monserrate. But, in terms of actually turning voters in the district against Monserrate. I'm not so sure it was the best strategy.

I'm not sure if you are involved in Queer Rising or were among those who pulled the stunt. I think Queer Rising has done good work and will continue to do so. But on that one instance, I do think it wasn't necessarily a productive intervention.

Anonymous said...

Hiram once had a lot of promise. But he turned out to stab one community after another in the back, until there was no one left supporting him except single-issue bigots. I feel sorry for him now. He is a ruined man with probably hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal debts. But he made his bed and must now lie in it. Hiram has no one to blame but himself.

Some Other Guy said...

Andres- This was very touching, well written and moving. You fight the good fight my man and I am always proud to stand at your side when and if the need arises. I have just posted this to my FB page so that those friends of mine can read such fine work as well as know the story of this awful, awful man.

You're a Prince Andres!

Anonymous said...

Can I just say my favorite part of the Monserrate flyer you posted?

It's definitely that "free parking at meters on Sunday" is a "Biblical position of morality."

Anonymous said...

I never knew about Hiram until the past year...beginning mostly with last summer and the whole Monserrate/Espada mess at Albany and the domestic violence issue (which he continues to play down). I sense that Ruben Diaz has had alot of influence on Hiram and possibly promising him God's favor if only he would vote against gay marriage, which seems to be the only issue I have ever heard Ruben be vocal about. He should drop the name reverend from his name because all I have heard some him is dirty politics...and even when he has called together the Evangelical gatherings to protest against the gay community...it is all just talk (without any real God-inspiration). He just relishes the spotlight in being so big-mouthed about us. We should take the spotlight away...and totally ignore him.