National News

Taunts and Insults Fly at GOP Debate for Staten Island Seat

Posted June 11, 2018 11:05 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — They argued over who is tougher on illegal immigration, who is more aligned with President Donald Trump, and who voters might say is the bigger liar.

The debate Monday between Rep. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., and his predecessor, Michael Grimm, was held ostensibly to help voters decide who deserves to represent the Republican Party in the 11th Congressional District, which covers Staten Island and a sliver of Brooklyn.

But the hourlong affair was laden with insults and taunts, as both men paid loud and often simultaneous tribute to the acrimony that has typified the campaign leading up to their June 26 Republican primary.

Grimm quit Congress after pleading guilty to tax fraud in 2014 as part of a federal inquiry into restaurant workers he was paying under the table. After serving seven months in prison, he is trying to make a comeback, reminding voters of the money he secured for Hurricane Sandy relief, ferry service and hospitals in the district after being elected in 2010.

But in the debate at WABC Radio’s studios in midtown Manhattan, Donovan sought to remind constituents that Grimm broke the law and lied to voters.

“You know what people care about?” Donovan asked. “He betrayed our trust. He told us he was innocent. He told us: ‘Trust me. I’ll be exonerated. Vote for me.’ We did, and weeks later, he sold us out for a deal with the Justice Department.”

For his part, Grimm, a former FBI agent and Marine, dismissed his felony conviction as a political witch hunt, saying that President Barack Obama’s Justice Department officials had singled him out for a civil offense that many restaurant owners commit.

“I don’t hide from the fact that I had three delivery boys and a dishwasher off the books,” he said. “I don’t hide from the fact that I deserved a fine. But I didn’t deserve a criminal prosecution, which is the first in the history of New York City by the federal government.”

The debate crystallized how the two candidates have tried to demonstrate their allegiance to Trump, a popular figure on Staten Island.

In late May, Donovan received a boost when Trump endorsed him via Twitter, saying there was “no one better to represent the people of N.Y. and Staten Island (a place I know very well) than @RepDanDonovan.”

In another tweet, the president evoked Roy Moore of Alabama, who last year lost his bid to fill a U.S. Senate seat after a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations. “We can’t take any chances on losing to a Nancy Pelosi controlled Democrat,” he posted.

Still, Grimm, who was leading by 10 points in a recent NY1/Siena College poll, wasted no time during the debate in pointing out key votes by Donovan that he said ran contrary to Trump’s agenda. Among them were votes against the Republican health care repeal, the ban of sanctuary cities and the tax overhaul. “The one thing voters want is someone who supports the president’s agenda,” Grimm said. “The voting record is clear.”

One of the most heated moments focused on illegal immigration, which has roiled Washington in recent months. At one point, Grimm suggested small-business owners, like restaurant owners, were prone to relying on low-wage employees whose immigration status was unclear.

Donovan said Grimm’s past as a restaurateur would likely have opened him to further prosecution from the current Justice Department, given the Trump administration’s “crackdown on illegal aliens.”

Grimm then accused Donovan of being soft on illegal immigration, citing his vote against banning sanctuary cities. In his defense, Donovan explained that the legislation would have penalized cities like New York by taking money from its police force.

One of the more peculiar exchanges centered on a meeting last summer between Grimm and Donovan at Donovan’s house on Staten Island. They concurred that they had met that day, but disagreed about the meeting’s purpose — and even whether Grimm was invited or not.

The two candidates became emotional in recalling details of the visit, which Grimm said was primarily to hear about a possible pardon. Grimm said Donovan told him that day that he had talked to Trump aboard Air Force One about such a pardon for Grimm.

But Donovan said that Trump seemed disinclined to help Grimm, given that the request had originated with Guy V. Molinari, a former member of Congress and a mentor to Grimm who, during the presidential election, had called on Republicans to renounce Trump.

“He was disinterested when he learned that his mentor was a ‘never-Trumper,'” Donovan said at the debate.

Donovan then took issue with the purpose of Grimm’s visit, saying it had less to do with a pardon and more to do with his political ambition.

“You pressed me all day to come so you could tell me you were going to run against me,” said Donovan, adding that Grimm suggested he run for borough president instead.

When Grimm countered that he actually nudged him toward a judgeship, Donovan replied: “That’s why you came. You didn’t come about a pardon.”

Grimm disagreed: “You were offering pardons because you didn’t want me to run against you; you offered to help.” Donovan retorted, “I offered nothing.”