With the New York state senate in complete shambles, Espada and Monseratte may be breathing a bit easier due to the actions of a former D.C. mayor over the weekend. It seems that Marion Barry was arrested for allegedly stalking his ex-girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt. Reports from Barry, Watts-Brighthaupt, and the police all seem to contradict each other, with Barry saying their meeting was mutual, Watts-Brigthaupt saying she had nothing to do with the arrest, and the police saying that Watts-Brightaupt flagged them down to arrest Barry. Nonetheless, two stark facts remain: Marion Barry is a mess, and Marion Barry continues to be re-elected.
Barry's criminal history is ridiculous, even for a public official. His most infamous arrest came after he was caught on videotape with former girlfriend Hazel Diane "Rasheeda" Moore smoking crack. Despite having videotape evidence of the former mayor smoking crack in a hotel room, Barry was convicted of only one count of cocaine possession (all other charges being thrown out after a mistrial declaration by the judge). Some members of the jury took it upon themselves to dispute facts that not even Barry's lawyer disputed. They believed that the very same government that employed most of them was conspiring against Barry because he was black. Not because he was smoking crack on videotape in a hotel with an ex-con; no. Because he was black.
I'll be the first to decry racism by prosecutors and the government, but one thing people seemed to forget is that he was caught smoking crack on videotape with a sketchy individual (this cannot be repeated too much). It doesn't matter what race you are when you're on tape smoking crack; you're guilty. One would think that a conviction for possession of crack (not to mention a highly embarassing videotape with you muttering "The bitch set me up!" as you're led away in handcuffs) would derail one's political career. Not Marion Barry. Barry continued his mayoral duties through his arrest and trial and ran for a ward seat in DC, but lost. In 1992, after being released from prison, Barry ran successfully for a Ward 8 seat, defeating four-term incumbent Wilhelmina Rolark. He won back the mayorship in 1994, served one term, stepped down, and re-entered politics in Ward 8 again in 2004. Despite several tax issues (which has led to his having probation extended because he does not file his tax returns), he was easily re-elected in 2008.
So why is Marion Barry's political career a good omen for state embarassments Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserrate? Because it shows that you can be a drug addict who does not pay his taxes and still get elected to public office. Espada should expect to get a few indictments by year's end for various misgivings (not living in his district, campaign finance issues) and Monserrate is already under indictment for slashing his girlfriend's face. With all the talk of voting out the incumbents from this year's do-nothing senate, the sad reality is that it will not happen.
So why does Marion Barry continue to get elected? He has two major advantages that alone could boost his poll numbers, but when combined are almost unstoppable (akin to Captain Planet). One, his incumbency. He held the Ward 8 seat before he became mayor the first time; he has significant name recognition. Second, Barry is black. In an area of D.C. that is 93% black, to be an incumbent of the same race of your constituents is huge. Hence, despite his long list of shortcomings, Barry continues to be wildly popular to his constituency while being a punchline of jokes for the rest of the country.
Espada has similar advantages that Barry enjoys. Espada's background (born in Puerto Rico, came to the United States as a five year-old) plays well with his voters, who are predominantly Latino (with Puerto Ricans and Dominicans making up a very large chunk of his electorate). Espada does not shy away from his roots in any way, shape, or form. For example, when he gave a tour of his Bronx "home" he was sure to sport the colors of his homeland. Espada's incumbency and his roots outside of the American mainland will help him tremendously when his reelection campaign is called upon (if he is not a convicted felon at that point and thus precluded from running).
Monserrate enjoys the same kind of demographic advantage. He represents a largely Latino constituency and while Monserrate was born in America, he is of Puerto Rican heritage and has been very active in the Latino community (notably helping to found the Latino Officers Association and winning a very large lawsuit against the NYPD). Combine this with Monserrate's keen attention to the plight of illegal immigrants and his coming incumbency and there is little to indicate that he would be voted out (again, assuming that he is not a convicted felon at that point).
Have Barry, Espada, and Monserrate done good things for their constituents? Probably. Does that give them free reign to do whatever they want (such as smoking crack, not paying taxes, holding an entire state's legislative process hostage)? Absolutely not. But one thing that separates these three from reality is shame. They have none (Monserrate recently compared himself to Jesus post-table tossing in the temple and Espada said that all the ire against him amounted to a "jihad" against him). As long as they hold a position of power, they could care less what the rest of the world thinks about them because at the end of the day they enjoy the perks of being an elected official. While their actions affect a very large group of people, the only folks they have to answer to are their constituents, and they do just enough to stay in their good graces. We're just collateral damage. Peace.