City Councilman Hiram Monserrate has already written the narrative.
“We have all the makings of a New York story,” he said in his Elmhurst office last Friday afternoon when we sat down to talk about his favorite topic: the redevelopment of Willets Point.
The small, neighbor-free neighborhood in Queens, in his telling, is a key battleground in an ongoing struggle between rich and poor, and between a mayor who is trying to accomplish a series of large-scale projects and the communities affected by them.
Surrounded on three sides by water, and bordered to the south by Shea Stadium, Willets Point is a collection of about 225 businesses, mostly inexpensive car repair shops. It has no sewers; the main street is marred by potholes; and in the last census there was one resident.
It’s not much to look at. But Mr. Monserrate believes that there is something profound at stake.
“What we have here is big government,” he said.
“Enveloping with, or developing with enveloping,” he continued, free-form. “Enveloping to develop with the threat of eminent domain.”
Mr. Monserrate, a 40-year-old former Marine and New York City police officer, has led a charge for the past two years to oppose the Bloomberg administration’s plan for Willets Point, which would include office space, retail space, open space and, of course, condos. There might even be room for a small convention center. Twenty percent of the housing would be reserved as “affordable.”
Mr. Monserrate is not O.K. with this.
“Eighty percent of my constituents and the community of Queens cannot live in this development,” he said. “Eighty percent.”
He is ambitious, and he is clearly confident that he’s on his way up. He is soon to be forced from the Council by term limits, but he has all but declared that he is going to try again to unseat State Senator John Sabini, to whom he barely lost in 2006.
Mr. Monserrate is arguably stronger now, or at least more visible, thanks in part to Willets Point.
And Mr. Sabini may be more vulnerable. He pleaded guilty to a DWI in November 2007. He sided with Eliot Spitzer in a struggle with the union 1199-SEIU—and now Mr. Spitzer can’t help him.
What’s more, in 2006, Mr. Sabini had the full support of the party, which dispatched all the star politicians, including Senator Hillary Clinton. Then this year, Mr. Monserrate was elected to be a Clinton delegate.
(“I was asked,” he explained, minimally. “She’s the hometown senator.”)
As Willets Point is not in his district, Mr. Sabini has managed to avoid taking a side. His office declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Monserrate practices contact politics—both in the sense of his accessibility and in his willingness to be louder and stronger and more controversial than his opponents, no matter what price he may pay in relationships with his colleagues. Although no one has ever accused him of anything illegal, races in which Mr. Monserrate is involved routinely entail allegations of foul play. In January of this year, Mr. Monserrate’s office reported that a number of things, mainly electronic, had been stolen from his office. Before that, in August 2006, when Mr. Monserrate ran for the State Senate, Mr. Sabini reported two computers stolen from his office, according to a spokesman for Mr. Sabini. And in 2004, when a candidate backed by Mr. Monserrate opposed Mr. Sabini, a tire on Mr. Sabini’s car was slashed.
Separately, Mr. Monserrate distinguished himself last year by aggressively pushing a Scientology-based detoxification program to improve the health of 9/11 workers, even passing a City Council resolution honoring Tom Cruise and L. Ron Hubbard. (Mr. Monserrate has said that he doesn’t believe in Scientology, but likes the health program.)
None of this has mattered much to the voters in his district. And there is no sign yet that any of it will matter much in the larger Senate district in which he plans to try his luck next year.
What will happen in that 2009 race, or with Willets Point, is unclear. On April 21, the city went forward with plans to rezone Willets Point, and Mr. Monserrate responded by writing a letter, signed by nearly 30 council members, expressing opposition to the plan.
He likes to say that even though he is actively trying to thwart one of the key remaining components of the mayor’s ever-shrinking developmental legacy, he bears no animosity toward Mr. Bloomberg. “I like the mayor,” he said. “The mayor’s a grand chap.”
He related a story about when Mr. Bloomberg took him to Puerto Rico on a private jet and they got into an argument over a bus drivers’ strike.
Mr. Monserrate was delighted. “‘You know what the beautiful thing is about this American democracy? That Hiram Monserrate, a former police officer, the son of a porter that came from Puerto Rico, is on this jet with you, discussing major issues in our city.’ I said, ‘You come from a perspective of big business, capitalism, and I come from grass-roots, union-member, and working-class people,’” he said.
At one point in the interview, he gestured to one of several wooden plaques on the wall with newspaper clippings varnished to them. “‘Political bulldog does a mean merengue,’” he said, reciting one headline. “New York Times,” he added proudly.
Then he excused himself, because Community Board 7 was waiting to meet with him.
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