Former President Donald Trump has left the White House, but Trumpism may not be leaving Staten Island, New York City’s Republican stronghold, anytime soon.
The former president’s name at the top of the ticket helped propel the Staten Island Republican Party’s biggest-name candidate, freshman Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, to victory in November against one-term Democratic Rep. Max Rose. But her rise to victory on Trump’s coattails may have come as a surprise for some. When she was running for mayor in 2017, Malliotakis expressed regret voting for Trump. Yet she closely aligned herself with the former president throughout her congressional race, ultimately winning his endorsement.
She proved her loyalty to Trump when she followed through on voting to object to Arizona and Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, even after other Republicans walked back their objections after a pro-Trump mob stromed the United States Capitol to stop the certification of the election of President Joe Biden. Party insiders say it was a vote Malliotakis had to cast, or else risk losing her Trump-supporting base. Malliotakis is not the only one who has wholeheartedly embraced Trump on Staten Island. South Shore Republican City Council Member Joe Borelli endorsed Trump 2016 and served as his honorary state chair during his re-election campaign.
Former Staten Island GOP Rep. Michael Grimm was a staunch Trump supporter while former Republican Rep. Vito Fosella co-hosted a pro-Trump talk show.
But in a borough with a history of Republicans with moderate voting records who work well with Democrats – including the late former state Sen. John Marchi, Borough President James Oddo and state Sen. Andrew Lanza – some wonder whether the local GOP may have ridden the Trump wave too far to the right, and if it could be at risk of losing future races in the swing county as a result.
“There’s no clear path at this moment, it’s a real inflection point,” said Richard Flanagan, a professor of political science at the College of Staten Island, of the Staten Island Republican Party post-Trump. “I think when Trump leaves office, a lot of that energy drains away and that registered Repbulican Trumpist stops showing up at the polls.”
Flanagan pointed out that the congressional district, which includes all of Staten Island and part of southern Brooklyn, could look very different come 2022, thanks to redistricting. Trumpism might not register with the new voters in Malliotakis’ district if it includes more of Brooklyn, said Flanagan. In 2018, Rose won Staten Island by one percentage point and on the Brooklyn side by 21 points and in 2020, Rose lost Staten Island by 10 points but won Brooklyn by five points.
Though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans on Staten Island, over the summer, the Republican Party saw a surge in enrollment in the lead up to the November election and a jump in turnout at the polls from the 2016 election.
On Staten Island, Trump got voters to turn out to the polls more than previous Republican presidential candidates. In 2020, Trump received 123,320 votes. The only other Republican presidential candidate who came close to that turnout was George Bush, who in 2004 received 90,325 votes on Staten Island.
Malliotakis and the Staten Island Republican Party condemned the rioters at the Capitol but did not call out Trump for instigating the attempted coup. About a week after the violent insurrection, the party’s most recent chairman, Brendan Lantry, who oversaw the victory of a handful of local Republican candidates, including Malliotakis, quietly stepped down to run for New York City Civil Court. Lantry declined to be interviewed for this story because he said he cannot comment on politics as a judicial candidate. The Staten Island Republican Party also could not be reached for comment for this story.
“I think everybody’s just trying to take the temperature of the district, and so I can’t say Nicole did anything wrong in running her campaign and kind of aligning herself with the president, because ultimately, she won, right?” said a local Republican political operative, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about the party. “So it becomes a question of to what extent [the party is] moving the needle and to what extent are they riding the (Trump) wave? I think definitely, they’re just riding the wave, which is why I think there has been silence on a lot of things.”
Local politicos say the direction the party goes in post-Trump remains to be seen, but the island’s borough president and mid-island City Council races, in which candidates who have also aligned themselves with Trump are going up against party establishment candidates, could be a barometer of whether Trumpism is here to stay on Staten Island.
In the Republican primary for borough president, there’s former Staten Island Republican Chair Leticia Remauro, who worked closely with Malliotakis as a consultant and campaign manager during her 2017 run for mayor. Remauro, who recently came under fire for saying “Heil Hitler” at a protest against coronavirus lockdowns, is running in the right lane. Remauro quickly apologized for the Nazi-salute gaffe and has said it was a “VERY BAD ANALOGY” likening the actions of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo against small businesses to those of the fascist dictator.
Remauro is going up against City Council Minority Leader Steven Matteo, the former chief of staff to Staten Island’s current Borough President James Oddo. There is also a Republican primary to replace Matteo, who will be term-limited out of office in 2021. In that race Sam Pirozzolo, a Republican infamous for erecting a 16-foot ‘T’ sign on his lawn to show his support for Trump, is challenging Matteo’s chief of staff David Carr and Conservative George Wonica, a realtor, who plans to run on the Conservative and Republican lines. Remauro and Pirozzolo both attended the pre-insurrection rally outside of the Capitol, but say they did not go inside the building and participate in the attack on Congress. Both candidates say they plan to seek the endorsement of the Republican Party.
“Does the institutional party support, is that enough to overcome a Staten Island Republican Party that seems to be moving further to the right, led by Malliotakis? That’s what will be resolved in the primary election and it’s only five months away,” said Bob Olivari, a longtime Democratic operative on Staten Island.
Though Malliotakis has called Remauro out for her Nazi salute, the congresswoman has yet to say whether she plans throw her support behind her former associate or Matteo, the first sitting Republican politician to endorse her in her bid for Congress, in the Republican primary for borough president. A local Republican Party insider, who requested anonymity to speak openly about candidates, said Remauro and Pirozzolo are unlikely to have the support of the party. The insider said the two represent an “extreme” wing of the party emboldened by Trump.
“There are a certain group of Republicans and this is the base of Republicans that Sam and Leiticia are trying to appeal to, that are just super-extreme in thinking, that this is just some giant conspiracy that is playing out before our eyes right now and that’s the scary part,” the source within the Staten Island Republican Party said. The source said they do not think far-right Trump voters in the local Republican base represent a majority of the party. But like the national party, the source said the local party ultimately has to recalibrate and figure out a path forward without Trump. “What happens in the post-Trump world? Because that’s really what’s going to define the future of our party, not something that happened a week ago, and sadly, not anything that happened over the past four years, not anymore at least,” the source said.
Staten Island’s outgoing borough president, who did not endorse a candidate in the 2020 congressional race, said good local policy will define the party, not one person or politician. Oddo wrote in Ronald Regan’s name in 2016 and George Washington’s name in 2020. But he cautioned that the memory of violence at the Capitol likely will not fade quickly from the minds of voters and that some will have to pay a price. “A lot of people will remember that, and there will be accountability criminally for some, maybe politically for others,” Oddo said, “but it won’t fade quickly.”
“I think there are Trump supporters on Staten Island who will continue to exist and have a voice, but I don't think that is the Republican Party,” Oddo added. “I think the Republican Party includes that, but I think the Republican Party is much bigger and much broader, and I think the Republican elected officials will be about local issues I think the Republican chairperson and the Republican county committee overwhelmly will be about fighting local issues and within that there will be Trump supporters who have a voice within that party, but it won’t define who the party is.”
Asked to talk about the future of the local party post-Trump Malliotakis’ office said in a statement: “Right now, the Congresswoman is focused on representing her constituents in Washington by advocating for accelerated vaccine distribution and pushing to strengthen election security, restart our economy and protect our law enforcement officers – not party politics.”
Correction: This article originally misspelled Republican Party in several instances.
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