Thursday, October 22, 2009

Justice for the Jumper

Who Serrated the Glass?
Why Didn't He Testify?

Henry J. Stern
October 21, 2009

Political reform is easier to demand than to achieve.

Monday we applauded the Times editorial, FED UP WITH ALBANY, linked to it and quoted from it at length. It was, to coin a phrase, a clarion call for reform.

Today, Wednesday, the Times selected its first target. SENATOR MONSERRATE MUST GO is the headline about a legislator, repeatedly referred to by the Daily News in its headlines as Senator Monster Rat. The Times editorial began: “Anybody who has seen the disturbing video of State Senator Hiram Monserrate dragging his girlfriend through an apartment lobby knows that he does not belong in public office. Convicted last week of assaulting his unfortunate companion, Mr. Monserrate, a Queens Democrat, should resign immediately.”

DIGRESSION: Monserrate is a mountain in Colombia, near Bogota. It is 3l52 meters in height (10,341 feet). There is a sanctuary at the summit. It was named for a mountain in Catalonia, in Spain, Montserrate, where a Benedictine abbey is located. The name is derived from a “serrated,” or “jagged,” mountain. END

There are, however, a number of problems involved in expelling a Senator, and, violent and erratic as he apparently is, an anti-social or offensive personality is in itself insufficient to justify a legislative body removing an elected member. There is an automatic provision for senators and assemblymembers convicted of felonies to forfeit their public offices automatically. Monserrate, however, was found ‘not guilty’ of the felony charges against him.

It is true that the respected judge who made the decision said that the standard for conviction is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and since the complainant recanted, there was no witness to say that he deliberately slashed her throat. We wonder, however, why didn’t the Senator take his girlfriend to Elmhurst Hospital, which was only eight blocks from Monserrat's apartment? Instead, he took her on a twelve-mile, 37-minute ride to Nassau County to find a hospital more to his liking. What did they talk about during the drive? Was she still bleeding? Maybe they discussed whether to go to a hospital at all.

Another issue, raised by Liz Benjamin in her blog, is that Monserrate’s crime occurred on December 19, 2008, thirteen days prior to January 1, 2009, when he became a Senator. Does that prohibit Senate action? No. The Senate waited until after his conviction by the judge on October 11. But it does make the case just a bit messier. In fact, Speaker Quinn said she had referred the matter to the Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics, but they are not known for celerity.

The real question is whether it was Monserrate’s strange political behavior that incurred the wrath of his colleagues, and whether the current proceedings are in part payback. On June 8, in a pre-organized coup, Monserrate joined the wily Pedro Espada, Jr. in leaving the Democratic caucus, and in a snap election, choosing Republican Dean Skelos as majority leader of the state senate. Such an act is political treason of the highest order, but Monserrate abandoned his apostasy a week later, on June 15, having been assured he would retain his chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Consumer Protection and its accompanying $12,500 lulu. Malcolm Smith, then Senate Democratic leader, had stripped Monserrate of the chairmanship and stipend, pending resolution of the legal difficulties he was in following the unfortunate incident, in which Monserrate claimed that he accidentally slipped while holding a glass of water, which broke against her face.

This scenario was similar to Governor Spitzer’s forced resignation after the disclosure of his encounter with a high-end prostitute at Washington's Mayflower Hotel. The dalliance alone, ridiculous and embarrassing as it was, would not have been enough to compel the removal of the state’s highest official, except that the legislators all hated Spitzer anyway because of his threatening and abusive behavior to them.

There is no doubt that, in his 441 days as governor, Spitzer conducted himself without any consideration for his colleagues in government or his own staff. Troopergate and the attempted cover-up blemished his reputation. His harsh words about Comptroller DiNapoli, and many others, left him friendless. It is notable that, when Spitzer was in extremis, not one public official said a word on his behalf. Eliot Spitzer was bright enough to make the Harvard Law Review (seven years before the young Barack Obama), but Spitzer lacked the basic skills of human relationships that most kids learn either at home from their parents, or in the playground from their peers.

I happen to believe, more than most, that matters of this sort depend on electrical circuitry in the brain to a greater extent than science has discovered at this time. If you have evidence to the contrary, please let me know.

As to the politics of his departure, it is said that when Governor Spitzer asked Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver if he could resist a Republican motion in the Assembly to impeach him, Spitzer was told that there were no more than seven members of the Democratic conference who would vote against impeachment. Resignation was the wisest course.

We wouldn’t count on Monserrate resigning (Rule 25 – No shame). So it will come down to a game of chicken, between the committee and its prey. Will the Senate have the nerve to remove him on grounds which are not the strongest? He didn’t kill anybody, and his victim and he want to marry, presumably when the order of protection which prevents him from contacting her is lifted. Whatever the result, the proceedings will be a huge embarrassment to Senate Democrats. The Republicans whom Monserrat joined and jilted a week later presumably have no great affection for their temporary colleague. The Democrats, unable so far to punish their new Majority Leader, Senator Pedro Espada Jr., may or may not take out their anger on the senator in their crosshairs who is presumed to be his stooge.

In the meanwhile, Speaker Silver, speaking in jest of course, referred to Assemblyman Jose Peralta, who shares a district with Monserrat, as Senator Peralta. In the 2010 Democratic primary, Peralta, and others, are likely to make a run for Monserrat’s seat, whether he occupies it or not. If Monserrat is removed before then, as is possible, and if the courts reject his inevitable appeals, Governor Paterson will call a special election, at which time the voters will decide who will represent them.

In this situation, the Democrats will either prove themselves racist by expelling Monserrat, or sexist by failing to punish his behavior with regard to his girlfriend.

Neither is a pleasant situation for a political party to find itself in. Perhaps new evidence will be discovered which will add to or contradict the facts as they now appear. Perhaps the parties to the conflict will tell the truth about what happened the night of December 19, 2008. Perhaps the Senate committee will postpone consideration of the matter until Monserrate is sentenced, an event now scheduled for Friday, December 4. Perhaps the PBA official whose card was found in the girlfriend’s jacket pocket may have something to say about the situation. (Rule 11 – Let it unfold.)

We will be watching the soap opera take its course. Our wish is that it not divert us from the substantive issues of legislative reform. Neither party should be diverted by this spectacle, nor should it be used for partisan advantage by either side. It is basically a case about whether or not one man lost his temper on the suspicion that his girlfriend might be unfaithful to him. This is not a matter of public policy, except insofar as it deals with the Senate’s ability or inability to resolve problems stemming from the behavior of its members.

BTW, we refer to the girlfriend without naming her, not out of disrespect, but because we believe her identity is not the point of the story. She is not a public official, and no one has called her a wrongdoer. She is entitled to whatever privacy she still enjoys.

Senators, while you are dealing with the Monserrate issue, please do not forget that the State of New York is fast approaching insolvency, and it will require all your efforts to deal with that critical problem. We know that the inter-party deadlock makes it difficult to do anything, and that Hiram Monserrate is one of the 32 Democratic votes, every one of which is required to pass a bill or even to constitute a quorum. But you all ran for these jobs, and now it is your responsibility to do them.

StarQuest #609 10.21.2009 1403wds

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