By Jeremy Walsh
City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst) fought back tears as she accepted the Juan Pablo Duarte Award from the Queens Dominican Culture & Heritage Month Organizing Committee March 24.ï»¿
For Ferreras, whose father helped found the group and who spent her childhood in the neighborhood, the recognition signified acceptance from the community after a tumultuous year in Queens politics.
“I turn and I see my father there and I wonder if, as an immigrant, he ever thought he’d have a daughter who’d be a Council member. … Then I turn to Helen Marshall and I think, oh, this is a person who gave me a job at 14,” she said. “I didn’t think I would be this emotional. I didn’t cry at my victory party.”
Ferreras has walked a political tightrope during her first year in office. She won a special election for the seat three months after her former boss, Hiram Monserrate, was elected to the state Senate and two months after he was accused of slashing open his girlfriend’s face with a broken glass. She took office March 17, 2009, a week before Monserrate was indicted on the charges.
Monserrate was later acquitted of a felony but convicted of a misdemeanor for injuring the woman as he pulled her out of his apartment building.
“When the incident happened, I really wanted to believe that it wasn’t true,” said Ferreras. “But the more I heard — and then the video came out. That, for me, was a moment.”
She stayed quiet on the subject for months, setting up her office next to Monserrate’s because the landlord knew her.
The last straw came when Monserrate joined state Sen. Pedro Espada (D-Bronx) and crossed to the Republican side of the aisle in June 2009, temporarily ending the Democratic majority and sending the state into a monthlong legislative stalemate.
“I remember working on [then-state Senate candidate Joseph] Addabbo’s campaign day in and day out, just to get the majority,” she said. “That was our whole message: Get the majority, we need the majority so we can pass all these things.”
Ferreras was the primary sponsor of a single piece of legislation in 2009 — a land use application for an asphalt plant on Northern Boulevard — though she co-sponsored 34 other bills. She said she had to overcome Monserrate’s legacy in the Council.
“I was tied to someone who unfortunately had a lot of drama at the time,” she said. “Some people in the Council were not necessarily our allies when I was his chief of staff. I made sure I was going to be reaching out to those people and working with those people.”
She finally broke with Monserrate for good after the Senate expelled him earlier this year and she decided to back then-state Assemblyman Jose Peralta in the special election for the seat. During the campaign, the tires of Ferreras’ car were slashed along with those of several other Peralta supporters.
She cites Peralta’s victory, with 66 percent of the vote, as the proudest moment of her first year in office.
“This was the first time that as a Council member I was able to tell my base, ‘I need you to believe in me and this is the best guy for our community,’” she said. “They believed in me.”
Now, Ferreras said, she has established her own identity in the Council. She has replaced former Councilwoman Helen Sears as the head of the Women’s Affairs Committee at City Hall and is part of the newly formed Progressive Caucus that hopes to take up issues like paid sick days and tenants’ rights.
And as budget negotiations continue, she plans to tackle the MTA’s proposal to end free student Metrocards and fight cuts to city-funded summer youth programs.
“I went to John Bowne High School. I used to take the train and a bus to school every day. Those MetroCards were vital to my education,” she said. “This is just another obstacle that they’re placing on our young people, especially Latinos and young people of color.”
Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.