On Staten Island, Candidates Vie to Carry Mantle of Trump
Posted June 24, 2018 10:28 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK — President Donald Trump loomed over the anti-tax rally here on Staten Island, as his face circled the parking lot on a mobile billboard promoting his endorsement of the incumbent congressman, Dan Donovan.
“Bravo,” said Michael Grimm, Donovan’s rival in the Republican congressional primary on Tuesday. “That’s one way Dan Donovan can actually show up to events.” Donovan stood a few feet away.
“Where was he two years ago?” Grimm added pointedly.
Donovan was actually in Congress then. Grimm was just getting out of prison. But Grimm is undeterred by that fact, and little else, in his brash and bombastic campaign to regain the seat he had to resign after pleading guilty to tax evasion in 2014.
Grimm had not even been invited to this rally against high property taxes. “He just showed up,” said the organizer, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, the Republican candidate for mayor in 2017. “Michael Grimm shows up everywhere.”
As with so much of politics and everything else these days, the race has revolved around Trump, and which Republican candidate can best carry his mantle in this, the lone Republican-held seat left in New York City.
The president endorsed Donovan, warning that a Grimm victory could hand the seat to Democrats come November. But Grimm’s fans choose to look past Trump’s endorsement, to forgive Grimm’s criminal conviction, and to pay even less heed to his more moderate record in Congress.
What they see is a candidate who talks like them and fights for them, just like a certain resident of the White House.
“Michael Grimm was a Trump before Trump was a Trump,” said Joe Granello, a 75-year-old Grimm supporter at the rally on Saturday. Another 75-year-old retiree standing nearby agreed. “Put it this way,” jumped in Joseph Marro. “He was John the Baptist for Jesus.”
If the idea of a felon taking out a prosecutor-turned-congressman seems unlikely, it sounds less so to those versed in Staten Island’s chip-on-the-shoulder politics. After all, Grimm won re-election in 2014 despite being under a 20-count indictment. He had faced a swirl of investigations while in Congress, including into fundraising schemes, but ultimately pleaded guilty to using off-the-books employees — “delivery boys,” in Grimm’s parlance — to skirt taxes. He served seven months in prison.
“To the outsider, it seems somewhat bizarre,” said Diane Savino, a Democratic state senator who has represented portions of Staten Island for more than a decade. “Everyone from outside Staten Island are assuming Staten Islanders are just stupid or Trump-loving Republicans, or there’s something wrong with them if they’re going to vote for this guy. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re making a decision on who they think is going to fight for them regardless of the other issues.”
The tax rally was a rare joint appearance for two men whose feelings for each other are not masked. “It’s gotten personal,” Donovan said.
On the picnic grounds, the square-jawed Grimm, a former Marine and FBI agent, seemed to create his own center of gravity, drawing in older women, in particular, for hugs and kisses on the cheek. Donovan offered mostly handshakes nearby.
“I love him, I love him, I love him,” Maria Sierp, 71, said to no one in particular as she pushed forward for her peck from Grimm. Asked later about his criminal record, she said, “He got railroaded.”
Grimm has tried to sell his prosecution as a result of a politicized Justice Department under President Barack Obama — echoing the “witch hunt” charges Trump has issued about the special counsel investigation.
The idea has sunk in, even among Donovan’s supporters. “He got railroaded,” said David Pascarella, a 47-year-old lawyer who is supporting Donovan, a former Staten Island district attorney.
In a brief interview, Donovan said the race presented voters with a stark choice: “Do they want the lawmaker or the lawbreaker?”
Grimm shot back. “What makes him a lawmaker?” he said. “You have to actually pass legislation to be a lawmaker.”
Grimm may have that classic politician charisma, but Donovan has as deep a well of advantages as any incumbent: the president’s endorsement, the Republican leadership in Congress, a big financial edge and the backing of nearly $1 million in independent spending on his behalf, including a $350,000 television and radio blitz from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the race’s closing days.
It can feel at times as if the entire Republican establishment is trying to carry Donovan over the finish line.
“You saw our ad. It’s Trump, Trump, Trump because we think that will work,” said Scott Reed, chief strategist for the Chamber of Commerce. It is only the third House Republican primary in the nation in which the chamber has intervened. Reed says he fears that Grimm will lose to a Democrat in November.
“We want to help elect candidates that are going to come to D.C. and govern, and not showboat and not threaten to throw reporters off balconies and not be a hot head,” he said. (Grimm once threatened to throw an NY1 reporter, Michael Scotto, off a balcony.)
Savino is not so sure temperament is the way to cut down Grimm, either. “Staten Islanders, by and large, are a passionate lot of people. We don’t get that upset people lose their temper,” she said. As the phone interview continued, the sound of a honking car horn could be clearly heard in the background. “Green arrow means go,” she explained.
In the race’s final week, amid a national uproar over the Trump administration’s separating children from their parents at the southern border, including images and audio of shrieking children, Grimm stood by Trump’s policy.
“I can take you to any nursery and you’re going to hear the exact same things as a mother leaves to go to work,” he said, later adding, “those children haven’t been that safe in a long time.”
The two candidates have practically stumbled over each other to out-embrace the president and his most fervent supporters in the 11th Congressional District, which encompasses all of Staten Island and a slice of Brooklyn.
Donovan introduced legislation to mandate that Trump’s portrait hang in every post office in America. Then he went on “Fox and Friends First,” the 5 a.m. hour of Trump’s favorite morning television show, to hawk the legislation. At one point, he held up two glossy prints of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
“These two photographs ought to be in every post office,” Donovan said. There have even been competing Trump surrogate events. Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived White House communications director, headlined an event for Grimm. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer and former New York mayor, spoke at a recent rally for Donovan.
“He can’t get a job,” Giuliani said of Grimm, “or he wants a pardon or something, none of which he’s helping by what he’s doing.”
After Trump’s endorsement, Donovan’s campaign quickly printed lawn signs conjoining his logo to a version of Trump’s. “We’ve got the president’s endorsement, Rudy Giuliani’s endorsement, we’re really optimistic,” Donovan said.
But Grimm’s campaign has focused heavily on Donovan’s votes against Trump’s agenda, especially the tax-cut bill and repealing the health care law.
The race to the right has excited Democrats, who are expected to choose Max Rose, an Army veteran who more recently has worked for a health care nonprofit. Rose expressed confidence about the head start he had gotten during the Republican primary, and said he did not care who he ran against this fall.
“We are going to beat them by such a wide margin that they never run for office again,” he predicted.
However, Savino warned Democrats against overconfidence, especially against Grimm, noting he had “cheerleaders with pompoms” at the start of his campaign in the fall. “I did not have cheerleaders. Barack Obama didn’t have cheerleaders. No one has cheerleaders. People like him,” she said.