“I’m a Grimm man.”
John Strand, a 67-year-old retiree who worked as a deckhand for the Staten Island Ferry for 36 years, didn’t hesitate when asked who he is supporting in the Republican primary in New York’s 11th Congressional District. He was sitting on the upper deck of the ferry en route to Manhattan, headed to an appointment with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“He’s a Marine, I’m a Marine. He’s the FBI man. I think he’s just a good person,” Strand said.
The race between incumbent GOP Rep. Dan Donovan and former Rep. Michael Grimm has captured national attention, with many Republicans – including President Donald Trump – wary that Grimm, a convicted felon, would be more likely than Donovan to lose in the general election. Grimm’s insurgent candidacy has inspired bemused profilesin major news outlets and is widely seen as the latest example of New York’s idiosyncratic politics.
However, on Staten Island, which encompasses most of the district, Grimm has drawn more visible and enthusiastic support than Donovan and may pull off the remarkable feat of defeating an incumbent in a congressional primary.
An NY1/Siena College poll on June 3 showed Grimm 10 points ahead of Donovan among likely Republican voters in the district, which also contains a small part of southern Brooklyn.
Grimm, who was elected in 2010, resigned shortly after he was re-elected in 2014, pleading guilty to one felony charge of aiding in the filing of a false tax return for hiring undocumented workers and paying them under the table in a restaurant where he once held a part-ownership stake. He served seven months in prison.
Grimm’s criminal past doesn’t deter his supporters, even though being tough on illegal immigration is one of Trump’s signature issues.
“I don’t have a bad word about him. In life, everybody makes mistakes,” Strand said about Grimm. Ella, a 47-year-old babysitter and Grimm supporter on the ferry who declined to give her last name, shrugged when asked about Grimm’s past. “It happens,” she said.
Grimm’s exit allowed for Donovan, then Staten Island’s district attorney, to win a special election to fill the vacancy in early 2015. Now Grimm is seeking to take back his former seat, following in the American tradition of besmirched-but-charismatic public figures launching comeback bids. But while others in New York, including Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and Hiram Monserrate have failed, Grimm may well succeed. The mystery, in a district that has long favored staunch support for law enforcement, is why?
For his part, Grimm does not seem surprised that he has widespread support on Staten Island.
“Let’s just say I’m very appreciative that the people have remembered how hard I worked and how much I delivered,” he told City & State.
More important to Grimm’s supporters than his crimes is his work in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, when he advocated for his constituents in Washington and co-sponsored legislation to prevent the Federal Emergency Management Agency from collecting overpaid funds given to homeowners with damaged property.
Joe, a teacher at Staten Island Technical High School who did not give his last name, said he supports Grimm because the former congressman was “here with us through the hard time with Hurricane Sandy.”
Grimm’s personality may seem abrasive to outsiders – he famously threatened to throw NY1 reporter Michael Scotto off a balcony – but to his supporters, it is an indication that he will fight for them.
“He’s a Marine, I’m a Marine. He’s the FBI man. I think he’s just a good person.” – John Strand, 67
Grimm’s path to political redemption echoes that of Donald Trump, a thrice-married and six times-bankrupt businessman who blustered his way into the White House and won 56 percent of the vote on Staten Island. “Trump is really revered and loved by Staten Islanders,” said Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, a Donovan supporter whose district overlaps with Donovan’s, and who was the GOP candidate for New York City mayor last year.
Grimm has a similarly brash style as the president. “Stylistically, Grimm connects more with the Trump voter,” said Richard Flanagan, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island. “Donovan’s a bit of an old-school gentleman and that doesn’t necessarily play well.”
Another dynamic that may weirdly help Grimm is conservatives’ newfound mistrust of the U.S. Justice Department, and the unfounded claim by Grimm – like Trump, according to the president’s supporters – that he was the target of a politically motivated investigation. “There are those who believe he was taken down in a political witch hunt, and they’re angry about that,” Malliotakis said.
There isn’t much distance between Donovan and Grimm on policy matters, although Grimm claims he is further to the right than Donovan on immigration. Both speak highly of Trump, despite their own relatively moderate voting records.
Donovan has his own record of assisting Staten Island. He often speaks of his time as chief of staff to the borough president on Sept. 11, 2001, and he also served as deputy borough president. In Congress, he was a co-sponsor of the Zadroga Act, which provides health care for 9/11 first responders.
In New Dorp, a neighborhood in the island’s midsection, a few ironworkers from Local 40, who were protesting a construction project that wasn’t using union workers, told City & State they were leaning toward Donovan because of his support for labor and the Zadroga Act.
Donovan and Grimm are also following similar campaign strategies, aligning themselves with the president and painting each other as Trump apostates – despite their own past deviations from the Republican Party line. “The reason I have been tying myself to the president is because I voted with him 85, 90 percent of the time,” Donovan said in an interview with City & State. According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, Donovan has voted in accordance with Trump’s priorities 86 percent of the time.
Out of 235 House Republicans, Donovan has voted with the president the 210th most often, which is typical for Republican from a moderate district. (Fellow downstate New York Republicans Pete King and Lee Zeldin have virtually identical percentages of votes cast with Trump.) Donovan said in April 2016 that he thought Ohio Gov. John Kasich “would have made a wonderful president,” but that he would support whoever was the Republican nominee. He supported Trump during the presidential election, although he called him “an imperfect choice,” and voted against the Republican tax overhaul that the president championed last year.
Trump nonetheless endorsed Donovan. “There is no one better to represent the people of N.Y. and Staten Island (a place I know very well)” than Donovan, Trump tweeted.
Grimm, on the other hand, has the endorsement of several familiar faces in Trump’s world, including short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who headlined a fundraiser for Grimm, and former senior adviser Steve Bannon.
Despite Grimm’s embrace of Trump, he was one of the most liberal Republicans during his time in Congress. He bucked Republican leadership and voted against an amendment that would have deported children who were brought illegally into the United States, and was a member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership.
As is often the case in close primaries with no major policy differences, the candidates have focused on personal attacks. Donovan has raised significantly more money than Grimm, and has been emphasizing his opponent’s criminal past in commercials and with a website, GrimmReality.org. At their first debate on WABC, Grimm and Donovan spent the first 10 minutes talking over each other and accusing each other of telling falsehoods.
Grimm, who rolled out his first attack ad on June 1, has labeled Donovan “Desperate Dan,” accused the congressman of “incompetence,” having an “anti-Trump voting record” and helping his girlfriend’s son get a drug charge reduced. (Donovan denies that last accusation.)
Donovan argues that Grimm “abandoned” Staten Island by running for re-election in 2014 while he was being investigated.
“I don’t think the people of Staten Island or Brooklyn should trust him to serve in Congress. He lied to us, he deceived us, he abandoned us,” Donovan told City & State. “He doesn’t deserve a chance. He betrayed us. People of Staten Island and South Brooklyn aren’t going to get fooled a second time.”
Grimm responded that by running for re-election, he helped keep the seat in GOP hands. “I had to run and I went through great personal strife to win the election and save the seat for the Republican Party (so) that Dan could even have a chance of being congressman. Abandoning them would’ve been not running,” he said.
Most unusually, a Grimm staffer attempted to deny Donovan the Reform Party ballot line by tampering with Donovan’s petition signatures. Grimm, ever unrepentant, told Politico, “I’m glad they did it.” When asked by City & State if the staffer had been reprimanded, Grimm said the question was “beneath me,” and a spokesperson criticized the line of questioning.
While Grimm and Donovan may not differ much on substance, they are diametrically opposed in style, and that seems to be working to Grimm’s benefit.
The NY1/Siena College poll found the two men had similar favorability ratings, but a plurality of voters believed that Grimm would be better at representing them in Congress, and a majority of likely voters, 54 percent, believed that Grimm would be better at working with Trump.
“They think Grimm will do a better job of articulating and personifying Trumpism, even with the endorsement of Trump for Donovan,” said Flanagan. Like Trump, Grimm embodies an aggressive attitude that his supporters view as defiant and willing to upend the political status quo.
Robert, a 45-year-old college philosophy professor and Staten Island resident who declined to give his last name, said he was undecided about his vote, and seemingly unaware of Trump’s endorsement of Donovan. “It seems like Grimm would probably be the more conservative candidate, which I’d lean towards,” Robert said.
Conservative may be shorthand for a staunch Trump supporter, as opposed to a traditional Republican. Flanagan noted that Staten Island Republicans aren’t just drawn to a more pugnacious style, but counterintuitively also to a more liberal interpretation of the government’s responsibilities. “There are a lot of public workers on the island who benefit from big government. So that Southern piece of the Republican Party, that libertarian piece of the Republican Party, doesn’t play well here at all,” Flanagan said. “That pugnacious, nativist piece on the Republican side – that plays really well.”
“There are those who believe he was taken down in a political witch hunt, and they’re angry about that.” – Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis
“To be blunt, only you in the media, or those in the media, have seen me as an underdog,” Grimm told City & State. “I had the same support I always had. People recognized how hard I worked, and how much I delivered.”
But those voters are at odds with not just Trump but local Republican elected officials, who are universally supporting Donovan. Months before Grimm officially declared that he was running for Congress, Republicans in the district including Assemblyman Ron Castorina Jr., then-Staten Island GOP chairman; Borough President James Oddo; and state Sen. Andrew Lanza said they would endorse Donovan, pledging him “their unanimous support – including the winning infrastructure that comes with it.”
The upcoming primary will be test that infrastructure’s strength. Flanagan suggested that the Donovan campaign and its supporters may be motivated by the recent poll to improve their get-out-the-vote effort. “I think in the two to three weeks lead-up, you’ll see the Republican electeds – maybe not publicly – make calls and stir up their personal networks a little bit to not embarrass the party and to support Donovan,” Flanagan said.
This year’s federal primary election is on June 26, a time which may depress turnout. “People just graduated, schools are out, maybe people are going for summer vacation,” Malliotakis said about the timing of the primary. “It’s going to come down to who gets their voters out on a summer day in June.”
“Only you in the media have seen me as an underdog.” – Michael Grimm
Donovan’s predicament is not unique. Republican incumbents across the country are facing steep challenges from opponents who say they aren’t sufficiently supportive of Trump. In May, Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina was defeated by an insurgent candidate from the right, Mark Harris, even though Pittenger outspent Harris 2-to-1.
Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, who had revoked her endorsement of Trump after the recording of him bragging about sexually assaulting women came out, now faces a runoff election with Bobby Bright, a primary challenger who accused her of turning “her back on President Trump.”
Grimm’s stylistic echo of Trump extends to outsiders perplexed by his popularity. Frank Morano, a local radio host and chairman of the Staten Island Reform Party, argued that while people in the “punditocracy” saw Trump’s campaign as laughable, Staten Islanders immediately took him seriously. “Even some now-Trump-supporting politicians in private thought his candidacy was a joke. The people never thought that,” Morano said.
While residents of the forgotten borough may have an anti-elitist chip on their shoulder, the district is also filled with cops and the sort of white voters who reflexively side with law enforcement. Grimm himself won in the first place partly on the appeal of his experience as a former FBI agent. Now, he is asking them to vote for a felon as a proxy for a president under a collusion investigation.
That’s why Malliotakis said that her constituents would be likely to vote for Donovan, a former prosecutor, because he is “Mr. Law and Order.” There is also the possibility that Republicans will vote strategically in the primary, since Grimm might be more likely to lose to a Democratic candidate in the general election. In the poll, 1 percent of Grimm voters said they would vote for a Democrat if Donovan won, while 14 percent of Donovan voters said they would vote for a Democrat if Grimm won. This could indicate that Grimm is less electable, an idea that Trump himself promoted when he tweeted that Donovan “will win for the Republicans in November…and his opponent will not.”
However, while Democrats vote strategically, Flanagan said, Republicans are more likely to vote with their gut. Trump is now in the White House, because primarily white and Republican voters liked him and believed he would advocate for their interests. Staten Islanders who went with their gut and voted for Trump saw how it all worked out – and so voting for Michael Grimm just might work out for them too.