Monday, August 31, 2009

As Monserrate Trial Nears, Peralta Prepares To Press His Own Case - City Hall News

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Popular Assembly member makes moves toward succession race, possible primary challenge...

Assembly Member José Peralta may still be a member of the Legislature’s lower chamber, but in the eyes of his colleagues, he is well on his way to a promotion.

In the cloakrooms of Albany, at least, he has earned a new nickname: “Senator Peralta.”

That has become a running joke among Peralta’s allies in the Assembly, according to one person who has heard the phrase whispered in the corridors of the Capitol. Many there consider his ascension to the Senate a fait accompli.

Peralta is already preparing a run next year for the seat of State Sen. Hiram Monserrate, according to Democrats in Queens and Albany with knowledge of the matter. Monserrate has been charged with slashing his girlfriend’s face with a broken glass, with his case scheduled to go to trial on Sept. 15. If convicted, Monserrate will automatically be removed from office.

Peralta, meanwhile, lies in wait. He is keeping his head down and his name out of the headlines, according to those close to him, but quietly putting the pieces together for a Senate campaign, should a jury find Monserrate guilty—or maybe even if not. He has discussed the idea with colleagues, and approached members of at least two organizations that would be influential in choosing a candidate to take Monserrate’s seat: the Working Families Party and SEIU 32 BJ.

“He and I have discussed that,” said Assembly Member Peter Rivera, a close friend and ally of Peralta’s. “He’d be the number-one candidate to replace Senator Monserrate, should Senator Monserrate become disabled because of any issues that happen in the very near future.”

If the seat did become open, Rivera, added, “I’d be an advocate for him to seriously consider moving to the Senate.”

Peralta has been encouraged by Democratic allies who remain angry at Monserrate for his role in instigating the Senate stalemate earlier this year, which threw the chamber into chaos and tarnished lawmakers across the state. Peralta has taken that anger as a sign that he can quietly begin assembling the support necessary to succeed Monserrate, even while Monserrate remains in office.

“There’s no question that he wants to do it,” said a Democratic staffer who works in Albany, and who has spoken with Peralta and has urged him to run for Monserrate’s seat.

The knottier question, Democrats said, was whether Peralta would challenge Monserrate should the senator survive his criminal trial and run for re-election next year. Many angry Democrats are searching for a credible challenger to Monserrate regardless of whether he is removed from office, but the organizations that influence and—more importantly—fund Democratic campaigns, such as labor unions, are less interested in seeing a battle royale.

“It’s not a question of, ‘Would he make a run if Hiram dropped out?’ If Hiram dropped out for one reason or another, he’s the guy,” said the staffer who has spoken with Peralta. “The only issue is whether or not Monserrate will still be there come next September.”

For the moment, the political players are taking a wait-and-see approach, as are most Queens Democrats. Even Monserrate’s former chief of staff and successor in the City Council, Julissa Ferreras, feels she must “stay on the fence,” according to one person close to her, in order to maintain her relationship with Peralta should he decide to run. Ferreras publicly expressed her disappointment with Monserrate for his temporary move to the Senate GOP conference, which instigated the Senate coup.

Both Monserrate and Peralta declined comment.

Queens Democrats say Monserrate remains popular in his core constituencies—among poor Latino voters, for example—but that there is considerable resentment in the parts of his district that he did not represent as a Council member, which do not know him as well.

“He’s king in Corona. He can do no wrong,” said one Queens Democratic staffer. “However, in Elmhurst … they’re holding his feet to the flames.”

That anger could be a springboard for Peralta, whose base is similar to Monserrate’s, but who remains widely respected within the political establishment.

“José is a consensus builder and knows how to work with people,” Rivera said. “Everybody looks at him as the leader of the Latino community, at least in Queens.”

Still, Rivera cautioned against predicting what might happen to Monserrate, who has routinely surprised Democratic leaders in the past.

“For anybody to assume that Monserrate is history,” Rivera said, “[that] would be making a bad assumption.”

ABOVE: Illustration by Aggie Kenny