Eric Adams calls it redemption. Mayor’s critics say it’s bad judgment.
NEW YORK — Shortly after New York Mayor Eric Adams took office in January, two emissaries working with his transition team separately approached an unlikely candidate about joining the new administration: A state lawmaker who had endorsed one of the mayor’s campaign rivals.
The lawmaker — state Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry of Queens — dismissed the entreaty, and Adams ultimately reappointed the acting commissioner to the post overseeing the city’s Department of Probation. Yet a closer look at the overture, details of which were confirmed by five people familiar with the action, shows it would have helped a longtime friend of the mayor make a political comeback: Hiram Monserrate, who was ousted from the state Senate in 2010 over a domestic assault conviction and spent time in prison for misusing taxpayer money while serving on the New York City Council.
Monserrate is challenging Aubry’s bid for a 16th term in the Legislature. And appointing the incumbent to a city post would have removed a major obstacle for Monserrate as he seeks the Democratic nomination in the June primary.
The effort by the Adams team — which a spokesperson denies ever happened — reinforces the mayor’s affinity for some of the most controversial figures in New York politics. Three months into his job, Adams has publicly broken bread with former Gov. Andrew Cuomo (twice), aided or commiserated with others accused of sexual misconduct and given plum administration posts to allies who have espoused anti-LGBTQ views.
And though the moves have earned him scorn from various elements of the political firmament, the mayor has stood by his decisions.
“He doesn’t really seem to care what specific constituents think,” said Democratic strategist Camille Rivera, who worked on an opposing mayoral campaign last year. “I really believe that he does what he wants and is going to continue doing what he wants until the public decides to hold him accountable.”
What his critics call bad judgment is, to Adams, loyalty, a shoulder for troubled souls to lean on and a commitment to giving people second chances.
“I have a criminal history. I was arrested as a 15-year-old,” Adams said at a February press conference when asked about this subject. “And the public said, ‘Eric, you turned your life around and we want to vote for you as mayor.’ All of you know how I am about giving people an opportunity — I mentor people everyday.”
The mayor’s office denied anyone from the transition approached Aubry about leading the probation department, and Aubry declined to comment.
“Ana Bermúdez was Mayor Adams’ one and only pick to lead the Department of Probation, and the mayor is honored she stayed in her role to continue serving New Yorkers,” mayoral spokesperson Fabien Levy said in a statement.
“Anyone claiming that any other person was considered for the role, let alone offered a position, is lying — and the publication of that false statement is irresponsible,” he continued. “Printing anonymous whispers from the shadows by those with an ax to grind undermines New Yorkers’ essential trust in the press.”
Monserrate said he has neither asked for help from City Hall, nor has he been approached with an offer of assistance.
“Me running against Jeff Aubry is not about any relationship with the mayor,” he said.
The bond between Adams and Monserrate goes back decades: Both men helped create fraternal organizations within the NYPD, where Adams reached the rank of captain, and served together in the state Senate until Monserrate was expelled in 2010 in the wake of a domestic assault in which he was accused of slashing his partner in the face with a broken glass and was seen dragging her through their apartment building on surveillance footage. Monserrate was convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to probation and community service. By the end of the case, Monserate’s partner joined him in calling the slashing an accident, and Monserrate apologized to his family and constituents and called the experience humbling. Out of the state Senate’s 62 members, Adams was among eight who voted against Monserrate’s ouster.
In 2012, Monserrate was sentenced to two years in jail after admitting to using city tax dollars to improperly help fund a run for state Senate. As a member of the City Council, Monserrate helped secure around $300,000 for a nonprofit he had close ties with. Under an agreement he struck with an employee of that organization, around $100,000 of the allocation went toward activities that boosted his run for state office. In apologizing to a federal judge, Monserrate said that he took the money because of a zeal to help low-income New Yorkers, an admission that did not help him avoid a jail sentence as his lawyers had argued for, according to a report in The New York Times.
Monserrate described Adams as a close companion even though, during last year’s contentious primary, the mayor said Monserrate was unfit to hold office when questioned by the New York Post.
“I consider him a personal friend, and if I can ever do anything to be helpful as a friend, I will,” Monserrate said in an interview. “I support his public safety agenda, and I’m saddened that Albany is not doing more to assist him.”
The Queens Democrat faces steep odds against Aubry, who won by more than 30 points during their last matchup in 2020. Nevertheless, he’s maintained a following in the community and has twice been elected as a Democratic district leader, an unpaid political post. Strategists in Queens said this toehold might have been enough to win, had Adams’s team successfully coaxed Aubry out of the race.
“An offer like this is extremely problematic and deeply concerning,” said one of the people who knew of the offer, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the sensitive matter. “Not because Jeff wasn’t qualified or capable of holding the position, but because it felt like a veiled attempt to clear the path for Hiram to run again.”
Under normal circumstances, Aubry would have been an unusual pick. Adams tends to reward loyal campaign surrogates with plum administration posts while casting aspersions on potential hires who supported primary campaign rivals, according to two additional people familiar with the vetting process. In this case, Aubry endorsed Maya Wiley, the target of a particular animosity from the mayor’s camp during the Democratic primary.
Despite last year’s public break and the two camps’ denial of any City Hall assistance, reminders of the lawmakers’ shared history continue to pop up on the campaign trail.
During last year’s primary, Monserrate stumped for Adams in Queens and hung a large banner with the mayor’s likeness atop his campaign office along Astoria Boulevard. Monserrate’s campaign treasurer, Sammy Muniz, worked on the mayor’s campaign last year along with two others who helped gather signatures for Monserrate’s Assembly race, according to election records reviewed by POLITICO. More than 15 donors who gave to Adams’ mayoral run also gave to Monserrate’s Assembly campaign, an overlap Monserrate chalked up to their long friendship and similar political outlook.
To critics who say he is unfit for office, Monserrate argued anyone who supports the state Clean Slate Act — which was proposed in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s most recent budget and would automatically clear old conviction records — and the City Council’s Fair Chance Act — which passed in 2015 and bars employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history — should offer him the same opportunity to start fresh.
“You can’t say all that in one breath and then say: but not for this one specific guy,” he said.
Sonia Ossorio, president of women’s equity nonprofit NOW New York, countered that holding public office is a special privilege and that the specifics of Monserrate’s conduct are disqualifying.
“Plenty of people should never hold an official position of power in government, and being convicted of serious violence is on that list,” she said. “Viciously slashing your girlfriend’s face, roughly pulling the dazed and injured woman out of your building, and then delaying her urgent care to avoid taking her to a hospital in your district is not the mark of a public servant.”
Monserrate is one of several people who have sought redemption and gained the sympathies of the mayor.
In recent weeks, Adams has twice dined with Cuomo, who resigned the governorship in disgrace last summer and is said to be considering another run for office. Last year, Adams was the only competitor to reach out and comfort one of his campaign rivals, Scott Stringer, when 20-year-old allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced during the primary.
In 2011, David Johnson, an aide to former Gov. David Paterson, pleaded guilty to harassment after a domestic dispute with his then-girlfriend, who had accused him of pushing and choking her. The allegations, and the Paterson campaign’s reaction to them, helped end the former governor’s shot at reelection. Johnson’s plea deal included an admission of shoving his partner, a violation that required no jail time. And he told a Bronx criminal judge that he regretted his actions and knew they were inappropriate. Johnson had already completed a therapy course by the time of his sentencing, the Times reported, and as part of the deal, the other charges against him were dropped.
Years later, Adams hired Johnson in the Brooklyn borough president’s office and kept him on through the campaign. Johnson now serves as a special assistant in the mayor’s office making $115,000 annually.
And one of Adams’ closest friends, Zhan “Johnny” Petrosyants, was charged in a money laundering case, pleaded guilty to one count and was ordered, together with his brother, to pay more than $650,000 in restitution. The mayor and Petrosyants are frequently seen out on the town, and are so close that Adams would sometimes stay at his friend’s Trump World Tower apartment.
Adams has also rewarded allies who have held views out of sync with the Democratic Party. The mayor appointed former Council Member Fernando Cabrera and Brooklyn pastor Erick Salgado to high-ranking posts in the administration despite the duo’s past homophobic remarks. And Adams picked former Council Member Laurie Cumbo to lead the Department of Cultural Affairs knowing her history of comments that incensed members of the Latino, Asian American and Jewish communities. The mayor has since said they have changed their views.
Stephanie McGraw runs a Manhattan nonprofit called We All Really Matter focused on providing services for victims of domestic violence, and rehabilitating those who have committed abuse.
“Redemption is possible,” she said. “I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.”
The organization holds an annual parade down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Manhattan. And when she needed assistance with organizing the inaugural event in 2020, it was Johnson, the former Paterson aide now working for Adams, who helped and marched alongside her.
McGraw said the mayor’s upbringing in Queens and Brooklyn has given him an important perspective on forgiveness that is not often found within the walls of City Hall.
“The mayor is a man who has lived experience,” she said. “And absolutely, because of where he comes from, he understands the importance of giving people a second chance.”