EAST ELMHURST — A planned debate between City Council candidates Assemblyman Francisco Moya and Hiram Monserrate was abruptly canceled Tuesday amid concerns over the original venue set to host the event — a Baptist church run by the pastor who presided over Monserrate's wedding.
The debate, organized by Food Bank New York in a partnership with the Campaign Finance Board, was scheduled to be held at First Baptist Church on Astoria Boulevard and 100th Street in East Elmhurst on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Food Bank New York decided Friday to move the debate to the local nonprofit Elmcor after it found out the church's pastor, Rev. Dr. Patrick Young, married Monserrate at the World's Fair Marina in 2016, sources and officials said.
Then, on Tuesday, organizers announced the debate had been canceled altogether due to "circumstances beyond our control" that could not "guarantee the professional and neutral exchange we have successfully provided in the past," a Food Bank New York spokesperson wrote in an email.
Young said he was only notified of the venue change when contacted by DNAinfo New York on Tuesday, and he denied any partiality toward one candidate.
"Monserrate asked me to do his wedding, and I did his wedding for him," he said of the nuptials, adding that organizers of the debate contacted him last week to ask about his relationship with the candidate. "You can marry anybody, I'll marry anybody. I didn't know he was going to run for office [again.]"
Young has had both candidates speak at his church, including Moya this past Sunday. He is legally barred from endorsing any candidate, given his church's nonprofit status.
"They saw pictures of me doing his wedding and they thought I endorsed him, which is radically crazy," he said, adding he's known Monserrate for years, since he served as both a city councilman and state senator for East Elmhurst.
Monserrate sent out a flier to East Elmhurst residents with a photos from his wedding and a note that Rev. Dr. Patrick Young married him and his wife.
Moya, whose Assembly district does not include East Elmhurst, is new to the neighborhood and deserves the exposure there, Young noted.
"The people need to know who [Moya] is," said the pastor, who has worked for more than 10 years at the baptist church. "Everyone knows Hiram, his public issues, everything."
The debate was the only public forum confirmed by both candidates in the contentious primary election, which has pitted the Albany lawmaker against Monserrate, who was kicked out of the state senate for assaulting his girlfriend and jailed for steering hundreds of thousands of dollars in discretionary funds to a nonprofit he led. He used some of the money to run for state senate in 2006, reports said.
However, they will spar on television Wednesday night on NY1's "Road to City Hall," which airs at 7 and 10 p.m.
In a statement, Moya called the cancellation "unfortunate" and accused his opponent of purposefully ducking out of the public debate.
"For months, our opponent has lied to voters claiming that I would not debate him and now he's the one who refuses to debate me," he wrote.
"This is the same kind of lies and deceit we've come to expect from Hiram Monserrate. While this is a loss for voters looking to attend the debate, I remain committed to spending the final days of this campaign speaking to as many voters as possible."
The primary takes place Tuesday, Sept. 12.
Young said the organizers "reacted on rumors and innuendos" in deciding to cancel the debate, adding that the only losers are the voters.
"It's a sad day for our community because the community should hear what both sides has to say and hear the issues," he said.
A day after this article was published, a spokesman for Monserrate replied to Tuesday's request for a comment.
"If you are running in a primary and you have at least a little respect for the community you claim you want to represent then you participate in debates period," Monserrate wrote in a statement sent by his spokesman.
"Debates are necessary so that the community can hear from those who seek to represent them. The voters should have the opportunity to ask the hard questions."