N.Y.’s Primary Colors

Crowley Could Face Latino City Councilman

Posted April 27, 2004 at 5:49pm

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), who in 1998 was handed his job on a silver platter by his predecessor, could face a primary challenge from a Latino New York City official in his majority-minority district.

City Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D) said this week that he is considering taking on the white incumbent in a district that includes northern Queens and the eastern part of the Bronx.

“I will make my decision in the next few weeks,” he said.

But Crowley appears to be treating a possible primary challenge more as an irritant than a major threat. He said he feared the primary would be “a distraction” as he works to help other Democratic candidates for Congress, particularly those in New York state.

Just from the 7th district’s demographics alone, however, Monserrate could be a formidable contender. The district is just 28 percent white, and 40 percent of its residents are of Hispanic origin.

And the boundaries have shifted significantly since then-Rep. Tom Manton (D) told a hastily assembled meeting of Queens Democratic leaders in 1998 that he was dropping out of the race after the filing deadline had passed, ensuring that he could designate then-state Assemblyman Crowley as his successor.

Sixty-two percent of the district’s votes are now cast in the Bronx; before the last round of redistricting, Queens accounted for three-quarters of the votes cast, and the district was half white.

Monserrate, who lives in Queens, is making no secret of the fact that his ethnicity would be a key part of his campaign’s appeal.

“There is a great contrast between the incumbent and myself,” he said. “The candidacy for Congress is about empowering the community, particularly communities of color who have been disenfranchised.”

Racially polarizing primaries are not uncommon in New York — even at the Congressional level.

In 2000, white Rep. Eliot Engel — who has since ceded some of his Bronx territory to Crowley — was opposed in a bitter Democratic primary by a black state Senator who was backed by the Bronx Democratic organization. Engel nevertheless won by 9 points.

But prospects for a bloody rerun in Crowley’s district are highly unlikely. While the Congressman’s support from the Queens organization is air-tight — Manton remains chairman of the county Democratic Party, as he was in 1998 — several New York sources said the Bronx Democrats are also likely to support the white incumbent.

Party leaders from both boroughs worked out a power-sharing agreement in the City Council a few years back that remains intact, all but ensuring that both party organizations will work together on Crowley’s behalf.

“The Congressman receives near universal support in New York City, from party leaders, labor unions and other significant groups,” said Evan Stavisky, a consultant working for Crowley.

Howard Vargas, executive director of the Bronx Democratic Party, did not return phone calls this week.

“If the Bronx County organization thought that they could win this seat, someone from the Bronx would be running,” said a New York political operative. “It’s not like an Engel situation.”

Monserrate’s institutional support so far seems to be limited to a father and son team of state lawmakers from the Bronx — state Sen. Ruben Diaz (D) and state Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. (D). The elder Diaz has clashed with Crowley on various local issues in the past.

Crowley has worked hard to reach out to his new Bronx constituents.

“I’m someone who comes to this with 18 years of experience [as an elected official],” he said. Monserrate “has three years’ experience.”

And to ward off any tough challenges, the Congressman has proved to be a prodigious fundraiser, sitting on $675,000 as of March 31 — much of which he would prefer to share with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and individual candidates.

Monserrate is unfazed. The 36-year-old former police officer and veteran of the first Persian Gulf War won a crowded Democratic primary in 2001 to become the first Latino elected official ever from Queens, defeating a top aide to Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) in the process.

“In politics there are different spheres of influence that may or may not make the difference in an election,” he said.

But even if Monserrate had a unified Latino community behind him, it might not be enough to topple Crowley in a primary. The district — one of three in the city with majority-minority populations that are represented by white Members of Congress — is 17 percent black and 13 percent Asian.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration saying it’s the most culturally diverse district in the country,” Stavisky said.