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THE NEW YORK TIMES
A Political Bulldog Who Does A Mean Meringue
By WINNIE HU
September 25, 2003
IT'S not enough that Councilman Hiram Monserrate sparred for months with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg over the city's immigration policy, fomenting opposition among council members and advocacy groups that led to a compromise last week.
He doesn't like the mayor's dancing, either.
Mr. Monserrate, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants who perfected his merengue and mambo in the barrios of Queens, said he was underwhelmed by the mayor's much ballyhooed meringue turn in the Dominican Republic last month.
"I dance much better than the mayor," Mr. Monserrate said with a laugh. "I hope you quote me on that. When I go to events, I always dance, and, you know, I dance pretty good. Sometimes, I get called the dancing councilman."
Mr. Monserrate, a stocky, soft-spoken man, has lately set himself apart from a crowd of ambitious council members by taking on the role of the mayor's chief critic on a particularly sensitive issue. And no, it's not the dancing.
Mr. Bloomberg had sought to comply with a federal court ruling that struck down the city's longstanding policy prohibiting city employees from reporting illegal immigrants to the federal authorities. In May, the mayor replaced the "don't tell" policy with one of "don't ask."
But critics argued that the mayor's policy offered too few protections for immigrants, and Mr. Monserrate, a Democrat, pounded away at it through the summer. Mr. Bloomberg's standing with Hispanic voters, a crucial voting block in any citywide election, plummeted even as he tried to cultivate closer ties by dancing and marching in parades.
When Mr. Bloomberg moved to restore the "don't tell" provisions, he singled out Mr. Monserrate during a ceremony to sign the new order. As Mr. Monserrate beamed, the mayor joked that the councilman had been spending more time at the mayor's end of City Hall than his own.
At 36, Mr. Monserrate, a policeman turned politician, has made a career of challenging the authority of powerful city institutions as an outsider on the inside. He grew up in Jamaica, Queens, the youngest of three children of a maintenance worker and a home health aide who put in long, hard hours.
"The greatest inspiration in all my life were my parents," he said. "A lot of things can be said about me, but I am an extremely hard worker and no one will outwork me. And I'm determined."
After high school, Mr. Monserrate followed his brother, Joel, and his friends into the Marine Corps reserves. "Everyone wanted to be with the Marines because they were the coolest, the toughest and the sharpest-looking, and Rambo was popular that year," he explained.
He joined the Police Department two years later, at age 20, and was dispatched to patrol Queens streets in the evenings. (He spent his mornings taking political science classes at Queens College, graduating with honors in 1998.)
Mr. Monserrate was soon fighting more than just crime. He helped found the Latino Officers Association, and later filed a series of lawsuits against the department, alleging discrimination, free speech violations and other civil rights abuses. He left the force in 2000.
"I wouldn't say I was asking for trouble," he said. "I would say that the issues I've been involved with have helped me to find out who I really am, and what it is I really want to do."
That turned out to be the hard-scrabble world of local politics. After testing the waters during a brief stint as a Democratic Party district leader, Mr. Monserrate plunged right in by becoming the first Hispanic councilman elected from Queens. His district encompasses Corona, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst and Jackson Heights.
His inauguration in 2000 drew so many supporters that it was held in a converted airplane hangar.
Earlier this month, Mr. Monserrate was re-elected for another two-year term by defeating his Democratic opponent in the primaries with 75 percent of the vote. (There is no Republican candidate.)
He serves as co-chairman of the Council's Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, which has 24 members, and has taken the lead on several minority and labor issues. Mr. Monserrate and his wife, Janet, have a 7-year-old son with autism, so he has also sponsored a bill that would require the city to install air-conditioning on school buses that transport disabled children.
BUT his biggest splash yet has been over the city's immigration policy. He says he was galvanized by the Justice Department's crackdown on illegal immigrants after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and then by Mr. Bloomberg's first immigration order.
"Muy mala," he says, shaking his head. "The executive order was a disaster, and we had to take it on."
Mr. Monserrate, a self-described workaholic, is known in Council as someone to have on your side because he can be a relentless, even merciless, opponent. He has been variously likened to a bull, a bulldog, even a pit bull. "I've heard that," Mr. Monserrate concedes. "But I think I'm a little better looking than a bulldog."