Monserrate shakes up Senate

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Newly elected state Sen. Hiram Monserrate (D−Corona) held out support for Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith (D−St. Albans) in a move that led to the creation of a Latino caucus in return for his backing the Queens Democrat.

Smith side−stepped the issue in an e−mail response to questions, but Monserrate confirmed his support for Smith and the creation of the Latino caucus. Until the weekend, Monserrate was a member of the so−called “Gang of Four,” made up of two senators and two senators−elect from the Democratic Party who reserved supporting Smith as majority leader. Three, including Monserrate, are Hispanics who pushed for more Latino clout among Senate Democrats.

Monserrate, who is in his second term in the City Council, said he did not reserve his support of Smith in exchange for increased influence when he heads to Albany in January.

“From the very beginning, this was for me, always about promoting ideals and principles,” Monserrate said in a phone interview Tuesday. “When you do a little reviewing of Hiram Monserrate, you will find I have taken the opportunity to engage in due diligence. That’s what I did here.”

The senator−elect called Smith “clearly the best option to be the leader of the Democrats.”

“I wanted to ensure that our new leader would take into account all the issues I raised with him,” he said, which included a Latino caucus.

There were reports that Monserrate would head the new caucus, but he said its leader would be determined by its members. He called the new body “something we should all be proud of.”

“There are a lot of issues that the Latino community faces,” he said.

The councilman said he never considered breaking away with Democrats to caucus with the Republicans.

“At no time ever was the option of voting for the Republicans ever an option for me,” he said. “To me, the option was always amongst the Democrats.”

Monserrate became the borough’s first Latino senator when he ran unopposed in the Nov. 4 election that saw Democrats win a majority in the state Senate for the first time since 1965. It also marked the first time Democrats have controlled the governorship and both legislative houses since the Great Depression.

He filled the empty seat that had been held by John Sabini, whom he had challenged once before. Sabini was named head of the state Racing and Wagering Board earlier this year.

Senate Democrats traveled to Albany last week for a meeting at which they reaffirmed their support for Smith as the leader of their party in the Senate. But Monserrate and the three other dissidents did not attend the session, which threw into question where their ultimate allegiance might lie. The official vote on the post will be taken in January.

The Democratic infighting threatened to divert some attention away from the ballooning state budget deficit of $12 billion, as Gov. David Paterson attempts to win widespread support in the Democratic ranks for draconian budget cuts. The Democrats strengthened their numbers in the state Assembly as well as the Senate.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e−mail at hkoplowitz@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 173.

Updated 6:38 pm, October 10, 2011
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