A Q&A with Staten Island Council Member Joe Borelli

City Council Member Joe Borelli
City Council Member Joe Borelli
New York City Council
City Council Member Joe Borelli

A Q&A with Staten Island Council Member Joe Borelli

A Trump vote “is the only way they can say ‘screw you’”
November 11, 2020

In five years on the New York City Council, Joe Borelli has cultivated a persona as a straight-talking man of the people – but not all the people. He’s a voice of Staten Island’s South Shore, predominantly white neighborhoods filled with homeowners and car drivers who voted heavily for President Donald Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. Borelli has risen to citywide prominence as a feisty presence on Twitter and the GOP nominee for public advocate in 2019. 

Borelli is one of the few Republicans on the City Council, and his sharp tongue earned him another job as an official spokesperson for the New York Republican Party for the 2020 cycle. That has made Borelli a frequent critic of New York Democrats, especially Gov. Andrew Cuomo. On Wednesday, after City & State talked to Borelli, he said he would flout the state’s new restrictions on private indoor gatherings. “I'll be having more than 10 ppl at my house on Thanksgiving,” Borelli tweeted. “My address is public record. Some family will come from (gasp!) New Jersey.”

City & State talked to Borelli about his thoughts on coronavirus restrictions, whether he has accepted President Donald Trump’s loss, and why he’s still pushing for Staten Island to secede from the rest of the city. This interview has been edited for length. 

You’re pushing for the state to allow more indoor dining, but Tottenville, a neighborhood in your district, has one of the highest coronavirus test positivity rates in the city. Are those two facts in conflict? 

No. Statewide (coronavirus cases) in New York is up 83% over the last 14 days right now. The statewide (cases) in Florida, which is fully reopened, is a (37%) increase today. (With similar populations, Florida is reporting significantly more coronavirus cases per day than in New York, and it has reported more cases than New York every single day since mid-June.) I’m not saying there is no correlation between cases and people congregating indoors. (But) we don’t seem to be doing any better by having strict lockdown laws. Every state in the country has an increase in cases over the past 14 days, just about everyone. 

Does it feel unfair that the city in general, and then certain areas of the city, have more restrictions than the rest of the state?

I’m not concerned about fairness. We saw an arbitrary lockdown of an area in Brooklyn with the goal of not having the outbreak spread beyond those borders and it failed miserably. It would just be foolish to do another micro targeted area. Especially when you consider Tottenville has the highest car ownership rate in the city of New York and it only has a few restaurants. So the odds of people who live in (zip code) 10307 staying there are very slim.

Speaking of which, New Jersey is legalizing marijuana, and it’s an easy trip across the bridge from Staten Island. Should your constituents be able to partake in the legal market?

If we legalize marijuana correctly, where we do get significant tax revenue from it, it might be worth it. I hate to say I’ll leave the details to the state Legislature, because they haven’t been able to implement medical marijuana all that well, but they’re going to be the ones to make the details. There’s just no way that the legalization of marijuana in New Jersey will not amount to de facto legalization in New York.

You seem to have taken President Trump’s loss rather well – joking that at least you can stop paying your student loans. Other Republicans haven’t. Do you accept that this was a fair election and that Trump has lost? 

New York state hasn’t even gotten to count the ballots yet. I am of the opinion that we should count every ballot and that every candidate should have their day in court. That said, if Joe Biden is sworn in in January of 2021, unlike many Democratic friends, I will not let that dominate my life and cause paralyzing fear for the next four years. Donald Trump was an obsession for the left, and Joe Biden will not be an obsession for me. Andrew Cuomo is.

A Republican, Mark Szuszkiewicz could win an Assembly seat in southern Brooklyn, and he seems to support the QAnon conspiracy theory. Is he supported by the local Republican establishment?

Honestly, I’ve never met him. I don’t know. 

Trump didn’t lose any support on Staten Island. In fact even before absentee ballots have been counted, he has gotten more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. What did he do right that made more Staten Islanders come out to vote for him? 

For many Staten Islanders, voting for Donald Trump is their only outlet of expressing anger at the progressive bubble they’re forced to live in in New York City. It’s the only way they can say “screw you.”

There are plenty of Republicans that happen to not like what Donald Trump says or tweets. But they’re very happy with the tax cuts. They’re very happy with conservative judges. They cheered on the nomination of (Supreme Court Justice) Amy Coney Barrett like it was the Rose Bowl. And those are the kind of things that make Republicans discount what somebody tweets.

The GOP seems to have outperformed expectations statewide – but they’re still in a small minority in the Assembly, state Senate and congressional delegation, and there’s no path to the governorship. What’s the party’s path back to relevance statewide? 

How do you start a question with “no path to the governorship,” and then say what’s the path back? The battlegrounds in the suburbs seem to have flipped in 2020. (Rep.) Tom Suozzi is on the brink. NY-11 (Rep. Max Rose’s seat) flipped. State Senate seats on Long Island have flipped. In all the suburbs, people have seen the outcome of progressive government in the Senate, Assembly and governor’s mansion and have realized that it may not be the best way forward. 

If you’re not in the bubble of Manhattan or Brooklyn, bail reform, law and order and the general coddling of New York’s criminals is an issue for you. If you’re in the bubble, I can’t help you.

You haven’t filed to run for reelection yet, even though you’re eligible. Do you have other plans?

I’ll be filing to run within the next week or two and will max out my matchable contributions very shortly and will hopefully win and become the next minority leader of the City Council and make the best case I can for the needs of outer borough homeowners and car drivers around New York City. 

Who do you like for mayor? And more broadly, how would Republican candidates get your endorsement in 2021?

I’m confident we’ll have someone credible and serious running on the Republican line this year. And the best thing we can do is sit back and watch Democrats file down the runway in a progressive beauty contest and promise nothing but more lawlessness, anti-police sentiment and financial calamity. I’m not going to mention names.

You don’t sound like somebody who wants to leave New York City. How’s the secession talk going?

I gave a briefing to the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation, they’re interested. (Democratic state Sen.) Diane Savino and I will be briefing the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce this week. There is tremendous bipartisan support for it. Staten Island is financially able to be self-sufficient. 

And the frustration that both parties have is that Staten Island elected officials are just lobbyists at best for even the most mundane tasks. For example, to get a traffic light at an intersection, we have to beg and plead and hope with some bureaucrat who’s probably never even been to that intersection. The people who decide whether the bus lane goes on 1st Street or 2nd Street have nothing to do with Staten Island. And there’s such a big delta between the elected officials Staten Island votes for and the people who make decisions affecting Staten Island. 

My favorite city in the country to visit is Savannah, Georgia. My district is like 30% bigger than the city of Savannah. The city of Savannah is like 140,000 people (144,464). Staten Islanders – and many parts of the city – feel extremely disenfranchised by a unicameral city government that the locus of power is very focused on the mayor’s office and the mayor’s office is seemingly disinterested in anything that’s not its own priority. We deserve better. We frankly deserve to elect people that have a vested interest in making decisions affecting Staten Island lives. And that’s the entire premise of secession. 

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.