Rishi Maharaj put his signature on a letter to Congress right next to the other New York Democrats who had signed just before him: U.S. senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Public Advocate Mark Green.
"It was amazing," said the Richmond Hill native, who joined Clinton, New York elected officials and more than a dozen advocacy groups in calling for a tougher federal hate crimes bill during a news conference on the steps of City Hall last week.
The group signed an oversized letter to Congress demanding it pass the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would expand the boundaries of the existing law by adding provisions for sexual orientation, gender and disability.
Maharaj, a 22-year-old Indo-Trinidadian American, was the victim of a racially motivated crime in 1998, when he was brutally attacked by a white man near his cousin's home in South Ozone Park. The man, Nuno Martins, was found guilty of assault and aggravated harassment and began serving an eight-year sentence earlier this month. Two others were acquitted of any part in the beating after a two-week trial in State Supreme Court.
Prosecutors, advocacy groups and elected officials statewide said the attack, which left Maharaj with head injuries and a broken jaw, underscored the need for tougher hate crimes legislation.
The state Senate in June passed a hate crimes bill after failing to vote on the measure for 11 years. The bill has repeatedly passed the Assembly but has yet to be signed by the governor.
Clinton, who is running for U.S. Senate against U.S. Rep Rick Lazio (R-Brightwaters), used the event to contrast her position on hate crimes legislation - she favors it - to that of her opponent and other Republicans running for office this fall who are against it.
"This is something I feel very strongly about," Clinton said, flanked by the City Council speaker and the public advocate, who nodded in agreement. "If you have held the hands and looked into the eyes of those who have been victims of hate crimes, you know why we are here today."
Vallone introduced Maharaj, saying he was "a victim of violence simply because he was different" and urged the Republican- controlled House of Representatives to vote in favor of the hate crimes bill, which is part of an appropriations bill. The U.S. Senate passed the measure in June.
The event was organized by the National Council of Jewish Women and was attended by representatives of more than a dozen groups, including the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Maharaj, who said he has tried to volunteer for Clinton's election campaign, said afterwards that meeting the first lady was a dream come true for him.
"She's always been a hero of mine," he said. "She's amazing."
After signing the poster-sized letter to Congress, Clinton watched Maharaj scrawl his signature beneath hers, smiled, and exchanged a few words with the stunned 22-year-old.
"She said, 'That's a good signature, it's very fast,'" Maharaj said with a laugh. "She said, 'I've got to perfect one of those.'"
©2000 Community News Group
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