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NYT: Race for Monserrate’s Old Senate Seat Winds Down

March 16, 2010

We will bring you details as they come in on this race, which could impact the delicate balance of power in Albany:

During a forum in Jackson Heights, Queens, last Thursday, candidates for a vacant State Senate seat were given a chance to question one another. One of them, Hiram Monserrate, addressed his leading opponent, José R. Peralta, as “José.” Mr. Peralta addressed him as “Mr. Monserrate.”

That formality underscores a change in the relationship between two men who once called each other “brother.” That, of course, was before Mr. Monserrate’s expulsion from the State Senate last month, after his conviction of misdemeanor domestic assault. Mr. Peralta and Mr. Monserrate are Latino, like a majority of people in the district. Each has also been the Queens Democratic Party’s golden child at some point. But these days, that is where their similarities end.

In a special election on Tuesday, the choice for some voters will hinge on ideology. Mr. Peralta, a Democrat who represents parts of western Queens in the Assembly, supports same-sex marriage. Mr. Monserrate, who is running as an independent, opposes it. The third candidate is Robert Beltrani, a Republican administrative law judge who has said he does not favor same-sex marriage but would let New Yorkers decide in a referendum. He is considered a long shot.

The same-sex marriage issue is central to a small, yet politically active, part of the electorate. It dominated the debate during the roughly three weeks of campaigning, overshadowing discussions on other issues of interest to the area’s working-class and immigrant residents — like health care, overcrowded schools, unscrupulous landlords and police relations.

Polls are open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m.

Throughout the weekend, as Mr. Peralta campaigned with a who’s who in city and state Democratic politics, accusations of racism, vandalism and infidelity muddied the contest and further confused voters.

In a message posted to his Facebook page Saturday afternoon, Mr. Monserrate insinuated that Mr. Peralta had betrayed his wife. Hours later, in a news release, Mr. Peralta’s camp charged that four of its cars had been damaged outside the campaign’s headquarters on Thursday and indirectly attributed the attack to Mr. Monserrate’s team. Each has denied his opponent’s accusations.

“I don’t know who to believe in anymore,” said Leon Mercado, 59, a retired social worker in Elmhurst. “I’m honestly considering sitting out this election.”

The 13th Senate District includes the neighborhoods of East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona, as well as parts of Elmhurst and Woodside. It has about 109,000 registered voters; 70 percent of them are Democrats, according to the state’s Board of Elections.

Despite its large population, the district has fewer registered voters than any other Senate district in the state because many of its residents are not citizens.

The district was reconfigured after the 2000 census to reflect its Hispanic majority and make it easier for a Latino to emerge as its representative. But in the first election, voters picked an Italian-American, John D. Sabini. The choice reflected the influence of the county’s Democratic Party machine, which supported Mr. Sabini, and the strength of non-Hispanic white constituents, who make up 12 percent of the residents in the district but are more likely to vote than Latinos.

In 2008, the party endorsed Mr. Monserrate over Mr. Sabini, whose political career had been tainted after his arrest in Albany on drunken driving charges. (He pleaded guilty to a lesser offense.) Last October, Mr. Monserrate was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault for dragging his companion through the lobby of his apartment building after an argument. The Senate voted 53 to 8 to oust him on Feb. 9.

Mr. Peralta has the Queens County Democratic Party’s endorsement this time, which gives him an organizational and financial advantage over his opponents. He raised more than $180,000 in the quarter that ended in January, while Mr. Monserrate garnered about $14,000 in the same period, according to campaign records.

On Monday, Mr. Peralta had an army of volunteers working for him, including several members of State Senator Liz Krueger’s staff, who distributed pamphlets on the streets. At Mr. Monserrate’s campaign headquarters in Corona, two women spoke to voters by phone in Spanish and Bengali, asking for support.

“The chances of a candidate from any other party to beat a Democrat in this district is almost zero,” Mr. Monserrate said. “But it’s not impossible.”

The special election has generated unusual interest. For example, the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, a civic group that organized the candidates’ forum on Thursday, holds these events only before the Democratic primaries, but it made an exception because of “the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” said its president, Ed Westley, referring to Mr. Monserrate. NY1 News also hosted debates in English and Spanish.

Voter turnout is seen as crucial in the race. Mr. Monserrate is relying on a network of evangelical churches that have endorsed him in part because of his opposition to same-sex marriage. Mr. Peralta, for his part, was out all day on Monday, greeting potential voters at a senior center in East Elmhurst, at a Uruguayan bakery in Jackson Heights and outside a public school in Elmhurst.

Siena College poll of 620 likely voters released on Friday showed him ahead of Mr. Monserrate by 45 percentage points, with 16 percent still undecided.

“We’re actually still knocking on doors, talking to people, because we have to get them to the polls,” Mr. Peralta said as he walked along 83rd Street in Jackson Heights on Monday under fine rain. He dismissed Mr. Monserrate’s accusations of infidelity as “an act of desperation,” adding, “I’m a family man.”

If Mr. Monserrate wins, the Senate is unlikely to wage a legal battle to keep him from taking back his seat. He said that if he were to lose, he might go after Mr. Peralta’s Assembly seat, which would be left vacant, or run again for the State Senate seat in November.

“This,” he said, “isn’t the end of the road for Hiram Monserrate.”

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