Keeler: Suffolk's new profile on Hispanics
January 9, 2012 by BOB KEELER /
"It's a very telling story of how welcome Steve Bellone is in Albany," said Montes, a new assistant deputy county executive. "I was expecting a very warm welcome, but that went beyond my expectations."
The labyrinthine halls of Albany are familiar terrain to Montes, who before his new job was chief of staff to Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood). Last Wednesday, the day of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's State of the State speech, Montes guided Bellone around the capital, and the welcome couldn't have been warmer.
One reason for that is legislators' bitter memory of Bellone's predecessor, Steve Levy. In 2007, members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus balked in the Assembly at passing legislation to let Suffolk continue collecting an extra 1 percent in sales tax, worth $300 million a year. They were furious over Levy's hard-line attitudes on immigration. Levy blamed Ramos for masterminding the revolt, which was absurd, because Ramos was relatively junior in the Assembly. Ultimately, the sales-tax bill passed, but the lawmakers had made their point. Montes was an eyewitness to that struggle.
Now, in a delicious bit of irony, the former chief of staff to the man Levy considered a nemesis is now the county's primary contact with Albany and with the Hispanic community. Montes, 31, is well equipped for both roles. He's worked for Ramos in Albany and in the district -- home to the largest concentration of Spanish speakers in Suffolk -- since just before his 23rd birthday. So he knows both the capital and Brentwood, Central Islip and Bay Shore intimately.
The appointment of Montes underlines two things about Bellone: his do-more-with-less mantra (Montes is doing more than one job) and Bellone's welcoming attitude toward immigrants. In his inaugural speech, Bellone told of a recent visit to the Washington Heights apartment where his mother and her siblings grew up. The Dominican family now living there welcomed him and his mother in.
"The same desire for freedom and opportunity which brought my grandparents to this nation from Italy and Ireland, continues to brings immigrants from all over the world," he said. "I will serve for a limited time as county executive, but I will always be the grandson of immigrants."
Montes knows the immigrant story, too. Born in Green Bay -- "I'm a Cheesehead," he proclaims -- as a toddler, he went back to El Salvador with his family and lived there through the vicious war years. "I remember the bombs, the noise, everything," he said. "I used to be very nervous. I would throw up every time I would hear noises."
He came back to Wisconsin at age 18, just after high school. In college, he studied in Chinaand hoped someday to be an investment banker. Then his father became the Salvadoran general consul on Long Island, based in Brentwood. So Montes came to the Island, immediately met Ramos, volunteered for him, and soon became his chief of staff. His background and breadth of experience made him a natural pick to fill two roles for Bellone.
In the next few months, Montes will travel to Albany every other week or so, to push the county's fiscal and other agendas. But he'll also be working with the community of Salvadorans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans and others he knows so well. Bellone chose well in hiring him and giving him two crucial portfolios. For our growing Hispanic population, the presence of Montes in the county executive's office is a welcome sign of hope.
Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.