Out of prison and unrepentant, Michael Grimm wants his seat back in Congress

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
Former N.Y.C. Congressman Michael Grimm announces on Oct. 1, 2017, that he will try to recapture his seat. (Photo: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/AP)

Staten Island is the fifth borough of New York; the borough nobody knows. Tourists take the Staten Island ferry to glimpse the Statue of Liberty and the dazzling splendor of New York Harbor, then quickly rush back to Manhattan. Natives who profess to know every one of the fabled pizzerias of Brooklyn and Queens know nothing of the secret joys of Denino’s or the mysteries Nunzio’s. And they don’t want to know. Among many New Yorkers, it is perfectly acceptable to treat Staten Island with a haughty dismissiveness, as if it were the one sibling who didn’t turn out quite like all the rest. It is a place of human hardship, as wracked by opioid abuse and despair as parts of the Midwest, but it is also a place of natural beauty, with country lanes and thick forests through which streams run. Recently, the island has been plagued by wild turkeys. And deer.

This spring, Staten Island has also played host to one of the nastiest congressional races in the country, with a Republican primary in New York’s 11th congressional district (which also includes a slice of southern Brooklyn across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge) that has each candidate claiming that he is best equipped to carry out Donald Trump’s agenda. Gaining on them both is a young, ambitious combat veteran who represents a new breed of Democratic candidate, emboldened to run for office by the rise of Donald Trump. A year ago, flipping NY-11 — the only Republican-held congressional seat in New York City — would have been unthinkable, but the internecine Republican battle has suddenly given Democrats a chance.

Written off for years, Staten Island could be a bellwether, just like the Midwestern states it has so much in common with culturally, quality of pizza and bagels notwithstanding. “The House majority runs through Staten Island. They need this seat,” says a Democratic operative who lives in the district and asked that his name not be used. The Republicans, he says, “need, need, need this seat. If they lose this seat, the firewall is broken and they will not retain the majority in the House.”

Outer borough: A Staten Island Ferry heads to lower Manhattan with One World Trade Center in the background last August. (Photo: Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)

Republicans can blame one man for this state of affairs: Michael Grimm. The irony is that Grimm is one of them — a Republican. In fact, he once represented the district in Congress, and did so capably. But then he went to federal prison for tax-related crimes, resigning his seat in ignominy. Now, out of prison, he would like that seat back. Judging by recent poll numbers, many Staten Islanders are ready to hand it back to him. The party is aghast, as is the press, just as they were when Trump’s nomination for the presidency was certain to spell disaster. Staten Islanders were among the millions of Americans who ignored those warnings and voted for Trump anyway. Now they are set to do it again, even if Grimm’s win could potentially wrest Congress from the grasp of Trump’s party.

If Grimm does prevail in the June 26 primary over the well-liked but unexciting incumbent, Dan Donovan, it will have little to do with his policies. It will have everything to do with his story. It is a story quintessentially American, that of an up-from-nothing politician who challenged the machine and, in doing so, became part of it. But then the machine chewed him up, spit him out and left him mangled. And now he is back, seeking redemption — but not quite forgiveness. He was the victim, despite what the indictments said. The people who love him don’t care about indictments. They love that he is back and that he is fighting for himself. They figure he will fight for them with much the same zeal.

This is a familiar story in American politics. It is the story of James Michael Curley, the famously corrupt Bostonian who served as that city’s mayor, the governor of Massachusetts and a U.S. congressman, whose Irish-American constituents knew that, despite everything, he was one of them. And it is the story of Marion Barry, the Washington, D.C., mayor caught smoking crack in 1990. He left office and went to federal prison. Five years later, he was the mayor of D.C. again.

“We moved a mountain of despair that was in our way,” Barry said upon reclaiming the office he’d lost. “Let me say, D.C., this wasn’t a victory for Marion Barry; it was a victory for D.C.”

Grimm is borrowing from Curley and Barry in his own unrepentant quest for redemption, making a  pitch to the voters in his district that only he can understand who they are and what they need. It is the pitch Donald Trump made at the Republican National Convention: “I am your voice.”

The troubles for island Republicans began on May 1, 2008. Early that morning, a car ran a red light on Seminary Road in Alexandria, Va. Cops pulled the vehicle over. They found that the driver was drunk. His name was Vito Fossella, and he was on his way to visit a sick daughter — but not one of the three children back home in Staten Island, which he represented in Congress. It turned out that Fossella had a second family in Virginia. Fossella chose not to run again, and the seat went to Michael McMahon, a Democrat.

Rep. Vito Fossella, R-N.Y., right, exits court with his defense team on on Oct. 17, 2008, after his trial on drunk driving charges in Alexandria, Va. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

McMahon did not have much time to get used to Capitol Hill. In 2010, he was challenged by Michael Grimm, a former Marine who’d also worked undercover for the FBI, where he investigated organized crime. Grimm was young, ambitious, intense and expensively dressed (“Mikey Suits” was one of his nicknames), but able to forge a bond with the white ethnic voters of the island’s South Shore. “Send a conservative warrior to Congress,” said an ad that appeared on the Drudge Report, the political clearinghouse popular with the right. Staten Island did just that. 

Grimm had run as a Tea Party candidate, though he had little in common with then ascendant anti-Obama conservatives. He departed from their agenda in Congress, working with other moderate Republicans on immigration reform. His finest moment, however, had nothing to do with legislation. It came in the fall of 2012, after Superstorm Sandy devastated much of Staten Island. Overnight, the politician became a first responder. A former Grimm intern named Christine Sisto would later describe his efforts for the conservative National Review: 

The day after Sandy hit, the congressman ordered everyone on his campaign staff, including me, to come to Staten Island and help with the recovery. I watched as Grimm slogged through mud and water, joined Staten Islanders to pull treasured items out of their homes, helped them get their cars started, and simply allowed them to cry on his shoulder.  

We set up a headquarters in the Staten Island Hilton and Grimm was often the last to leave, around midnight or later. He was often scolded by his staff for not getting in front of the cameras enough to discuss all he was doing. Few politicians I know (and I know a few) would have done so much physically and emotionally demanding work themselves.

A senior Grimm staffer from that time also described a man singularly engaged. The enthusiasm followed him back to Washington. The following year, Grimm received bipartisan support for the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act, which would protect victims of disasters like Sandy from premium hikes. President Obama signed the bill into law. 

But if people outside New York know Grimm, it is not for his hurricane relief efforts but for an ugly incident that took place on Jan. 28, 2014. President Obama had just delivered his State of the Union address, and Grimm was offering his take on the speech to Michael Scotto, a television reporter for NY1. As the interview concluded, Scotto asked Grimm about a federal investigation into his campaign fundraising, which would come to involve a rabbi with ties to LeBron James and a woman in Houston. Grimm stormed off, but then came back to threaten Scotto — with the camera still running. In the footage, Grimm looms over the diminutive reporter. “You ever do that to me again, I’ll throw you off this f***ing balcony,” he threatens. “I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.”

Led by Loretta Lynch, then the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, federal officials continued to investigate Grimm. When they ultimately indicted him, on April 28, 2014, it was for tax fraud charges relating to his management of a small restaurant called Healthalicious on the Upper East Side. The indictment alleged that Grimm evaded taxes by underreporting his employees’ wages by as much as $1 million. Lynch, in a statement, said that Grimm “turned his back on every oath he had ever taken.” That November, she was named U.S. attorney general by President Obama.

Just days before that appointment, Grimm earned his own ticket to Washington, winning reelection even as he prepared to stand trial on the federal charges. This was at least in part because Grimm’s opponent was Domenic Recchia, a city councilman who was the product of the city’s Democratic machine. In its endorsement of Grimm, the New York Daily News called Recchia “dumb, ill-informed, evasive and inarticulate.” Not that the paper was much more enthusiastic about its chosen candidate: the endorsement was titled “Very Grimm Choice.”

Former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, center, leaves following his sentencing in federal court on July 17, 2015, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was sentenced to eight months in prison for tax evasion. (Photo: Kevin Hagen/AP)

Victory didn’t resolve Grimm’s legal troubles. His trial began in December. It ended with Grimm sentenced, the following summer, to eight months in prison, and his resignation from Congress. “Your moral compass, Mr. Grimm,” the sentencing judge said, “needs some reorientation.”

The moral dimension of Grimm’s compass I can’t speak to, but his sense of direction is unerring. Earlier this month, I watched him hold a campaign rally at the same Hilton Garden Inn where, five years ago, he’d directed Sandy recovery efforts. This time, the mood was happy, buzzy in the way political campaigns believed close to victory are. A mostly middle-aged crowd milled about, as before a second wedding they are sure will be better fated than the first. A table was laden with pastries, and the air thick with rapidly disappearing outer-borough accents.

It was a Staten Island crowd, but not exclusively. “He’s almost like a cult figure here,” said Christophe Lirola, a mergers-and-acquisitions guy from Manhattan.

Though a return by Grimm seemed unthinkable only months ago, a sense of victory was in the air. “If you just drive around, there’s Michael Grimm signs everywhere,” said Joe Frusci, a teacher from Staten Island who also blogs about politics. In the ballroom, some people were carrying placards that said, “Michael Grimm 2018: He’s Got My Back!” on one side and “Trump 2020: Keep America Great!” on the other (Trump has not endorsed Grimm or anyone else in the race).

Much like Trump, who was accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women during the presidential campaign, Grimm has spurned even the most modest shows of contrition. He claims to be the victim of politically motivated prosecution; he did nothing worse, he says, than pay a few dishwashers and busboys under the table. “It was an absolute political witch hunt,” Grimm says. It is the same thing Trump says of the investigation into Russian electoral meddling by special counsel Robert Mueller and what the Republican governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens, calls an ever-widening investigation into his conduct. Inconvenient facts are “fake news,” while potentially damaging investigations are “witch hunts.”

A campaign poster supporting Republican Michael Grimm for Congress is displayed on Staten Island, N.Y. (Photo: Gordon Donovan/Yahoo News)

And while some Republicans are abandoning Trump, Grimm has lashed himself to the gilded mast of the USS Donald. He has branded the incumbent Donovan as “Desperate Dan,” and if the nickname doesn’t quite rise to the level of “Liddle Marco” or “Low Energy Jeb,” it conveys that Grimm is a candidate in the Trumpian mold. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon encouraged Grimm to run when few others would, and his influence can still be seen in a recent press release that blasted Donovan for his “globalist” agenda.

Grimm has also taken on Trump’s tendency to conspiracy-monger. It dates at least to 2012, when a window was broken at his campaign office and Grimm declared himself the victim of a Watergate-style plot.  (The police determined it was a random act of vandalism perpetrated by a teenager). Trump has given license to much more grandiose ideation. Grimm now believes that his successful prosecution by Lynch is what led Obama to elevate her to U.S. attorney general. “I know for a fact that a deal was made with Loretta Lynch,” he says. His opponent, Donovan, is amused by the assertion. “He really believes that Loretta Lynch became the attorney general of the United States because she prosecuted,” he says. “He is the only person that believes that, by the way.” To be fair, some of the people at the Hilton rally seemed to believe it too. 

The congressional district office of U.S. Representative Michael Grimm on Staten Island, N.Y., in 2014. (Photo: Keith Bedford/Reuters)

The Hilton rally was a big deal because of what came before: That morning, Grimm hosted a fundraising breakfast headlined by Anthony Scaramucci, who for 11 days in the summer of 2017 captivated the nation as Trump’s exuberant and profane communications director. That had ended pretty much as everyone predicted it would. Now Scaramucci was looking for a comeback, and he had hitched himself to another Italian-American who’d made the journey from nothing to something. This was identity politics in its purest form, the kind that has been practiced in New York since even before Boss Tweed urged the Irish out of the tenements, to the polls. 

First came a priest. “The sun is shining above the clouds,” he said, in reference to the day’s dreary weather — and maybe also to the storm that lashed Staten Island six years ago. Then came the Mooch. He joked, predictably, about his brief passage through Washington, a place he deemed “a little ruthless, a little mean.” He promised that Grimm wouldn’t be another Washington politician like those “sitting there, feathering their own bed.” Grimm had been convicted of doing just that.

Anthony Scaramucci, founder and co-managing partner at SkyBridge Capital, speaks during the opening remarks at the SALT conference in Las Vegas on May 17, 2017. (Photo: Richard Brian/Reuters)

The Mooch is sunny and effervescent. Grimm, who followed him, is a congressman chiseled out of a Marine, with a stiff bearing he seems incapable of relaxing. But he was very much at home in this crowd from the South Shore, these former cops and sanitation chiefs, middle-aged women elaborately made up, young guys with scraggly facial hair and loose-fitting suits. He was one of them, whether he was in the McKean Federal Correctional Institution or in the U.S. House of Representatives. “You are the reason that I get up here,” Grimm said as he took the stage, to continuing applause. “You are my inspiration. You never, ever stop amazing me.” This remains the most convincing thing I have heard him say.

Then things got dark. Grimm depicted New York City as under siege because of two liberals — Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio — who were proffering a “radical left agenda” that would allow each to run for president in 2020. Grimm listed some of the ills they foisted on the city: high property taxes, rising crime, (actually crime, particularly murder, has been declining in New York for years) the homeless who camp out in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, terrible traffic on terrible roads. He lamented both the opioid abuse epidemic and de Blasio’s proposal to install safe injection sites across the city, which proponents believe could reduce overdose deaths.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The speech sometimes sounded like Grimm longed for City Hall, not Capitol Hill, though he later denied wanting to run for mayor. Like the Democratic operative who believes the district is crucial to Republican prospects in November, Grimm sees Staten Island as a bulwark, albeit of a somewhat different sort. “Staten Island and Brooklyn, this congressional district,” he said, “is without a doubt the last beacon of hope for all of us that are rational-minded, family-oriented, conservative, principled people,” he proclaimed to the cheering crowd. “We’re the last ones in this city of New York. We’re it!”

When I asked him later about he would do first upon returning to Congress, Grimm said he would ask the federal Department of Health and Human Services to turn Staten Island into a national laboratory of sorts for a response to the opioid crisis. It’s hard to gauge the prospects of such a plan, but it was a reminder of how relentlessly local Grimm’s approach is. But if that approach was once rooted in dogged pragmatism, it has become bracingly ideological, leading Ben Adler of City & State New York, a political news site, to quip that Grimm “has rebranded in his current run as a cross between Sean Hannity and, well, Sean Hannity.”

Asked about his record in Congress the first time around, Grimm grew amazed. “Are you kidding? Did you see my legislative accomplishments in four years? Find a member who passed more legislation than me in those four years,” he said, perhaps seriously. “You’re gonna take a long time to do that.”

There is only one problem with this pitch, as far as national Republicans are concerned: It was directed at another Republican. Grimm is now leading Donovan by as many as 10 points, according to one poll. Republicans worry that, like other pro-Trump candidates across the nation, Grimm could win the primary only to run into an attractive, centrist challenger — in this case, Max Rose, who is widely expected to win the Democratic primary. This anxiety has increased with Grimm’s prospects. Making Grimm the Republican candidate would be “utter lunacy,” fretted the New York Post in an editorial published after the most recent polling.

Grimm has given voters a choice they weren’t especially clamoring for, though they might take it all the same. Like other unconventional candidates — Don Blankenship in West Virginia and Joe Arpaio in Arizona, both running for the Senate — Grimm is selling the moonshine brand of Trumpism: raw, stinging and irresistible to those who can handle the burn. The disapproval of the Republican establishment is a kind of chaser, bitter and sweet.

The man Grimm seeks to replace is spectacularly unsuited for this kind of warfare. I remember meeting Dan Donovan in 2010, when he sought the endorsement of the Daily News’ editorial board, of which I was a member, in his quest to become New York’s attorney general. He was then, and remains, soft-spoken but thoughtful, the kind of measured Republican that used to be more common both in New York and across the nation. We endorsed Donovan, but he lost the race to an ambitious young legislator from Manhattan: Eric Schneiderman, the onetime Democratic star who was forced to resign the post earlier this spring after allegations of sexual assault surfaced. 

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin gives the House oath of office to Rep. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., during a mock swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Jan. 3, 2017. (Photo: Zach Gibson/AP)

Donovan went back to Staten Island, where he was district attorney, and where he handled the case of Eric Garner, an African-American man killed by a police officer who put him in an illegal chokehold. Donovan convened a grand jury but failed to win an indictment of the officer. He declined to make public the evidence he had presented to the grand jurors, leading activists to accuse him of a half-hearted effort on Garner’s behalf. The outrage did little to dampen support for Donovan on Staten Island.  

Donovan won the 11th district seat in the special election held after Grimm’s resignation, and immediately joined several centrist caucuses, including one working on climate change. There was no surprise here; he was the same mostly moderate Republican he had always been. Yet as the Republican caucus moved to the right, Donovan found himself increasingly out of step — especially once Trump became president. In the spring of 2017, he voted against the American Health Care Act, the makeshift plan cobbled together by Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans to replace the Affordable Care Act. In a statement, Donovan said the ACA was “failing,” but noted — correctly — that the AHCA would raise the cost of health care, for seniors in particular. Several months later, he voted against the Trump tax cut and reform package, arguing — again, correctly — that its elimination of state and local tax deductions would hurt many New Yorkers. “Let’s stop pretending this bill is good for everybody,” he said.

 He apologizes for precisely none of this. “I voted about 90% of the time with the president, I’ll vote 100% of the time with the people of my community,” he told me. The tall, balding Donovan is in manner and appearance the exact opposite of the dark-haired, nervy Grimm. But like Grimm, he grew up poor in Staten Island (Tompkinsville, where Garner died) and knows how to throw a rhetorical punch. Asked about Grimm’s attacks on his record, he responds quickly and bitterly: “Well, he was in prison for part of that time, so unless he was reading newspapers, I don’t know he would know that.”

Grimm’s attacks have sharpened too. Much like Trump, Grimm disdains the finer points of policy. Also like Trump, he has decided that loyalty to Trump is a statesman’s highest virtue. And if that loyalty isn’t complete, it may as well be nonexistent. When I later asked Grimm if he could name a single mistake Trump had made in office, he declined. “I don’t see any major, major blunders. I mean, no one’s gonna be a 100 percent perfect all the time,” he said.

Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington as he faced criminal charges from federal prosecutors, according to his lawyer. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Grimm is bolstered by the conviction the Donovan does not want to be in Washington. Donovan says this isn’t true, but he does have a young daughter, who naturally enough has him looking homeward. When I was trying to schedule an interview with him, her third birthday party kept coming up, which was charming and understandable but also revealing. Many a politician would miss the affair without a second thought, but decent Danny Donovan refused to do so. When he is in Washington, he sleeps on a cot in his office to save money. The photo of him and his “domestic” arrangement that appeared in the New York Post had the look of something uncomfortable and desperate, even though plenty of other legislators hunker down on the Hill. Donovan may have just been parsimonious, but he also looked like a man who wanted badly to get home.

The rumors that Donovan wants to be back in New York often include him hoping for a judgeship. One person I spoke to suggested that if Donovan loses to Grimm in the primary and foregoes a potentially disastrous third-party run, Trump might nominate him for the bench. Still, for some Republicans, there remains something fundamentally unseemly about Grimm’s primary challenge.

I asked Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican state assemblywoman from Staten Island who mounted an unsuccessful challenge to de Blasio last year, whether she thought Grimm’s run was a good idea. She paused. She sighed. “Who am I to say whether it’s a good idea or not?” she replied. Malliotakis has made no endorsements in the race, and she had good things to say about both candidates. Still, Grimm’s apparent presumption rankles her. “I feel he could have waited until Danny left,” Malliotakis told me.

Grimm did not want to wait, driven by the conviction that the people need him and him alone. He says he can save Staten Island from both opioids and liberals. Implicit in this promise is the notion that if the voters can resurrect Grimm, onetime federal penitent, then he in turn can resurrect Staten Island. And if you drive through the borough, where vinyl-sided houses sag and lots sit empty waiting for development, you very much feel that this is a place in need of resurrection.

But it won’t be quite so easy for Grimm. Even if he wins in June, Donovan could still run in the general election on the Independence Party line — much like Blankenship, the West Virginia candidate for the U.S. Senate, who is planning to run as a Constitution Party candidate after losing in the Republican primary. Certainly, the “politics of personal destruction,” which have gotten only more vicious since Bill Clinton coined the term, make post-primary reconciliation increasingly unlikely. Donovan, for his part, certainly doesn’t sound like he will be stumping for Grimm anytime soon.

And then there is Rose, a new breed of Democrat who came of age between 9/11 and Trump. The 31-year-old Rose is from the Brooklyn side of the district. He attended Poly Prep, a prestigious private school in that borough, then went to Wesleyan, a school famous for its liberal politics. Rose then enlisted in the Army and served in Afghanistan with distinction, returning to New York to work for a health care organization, Brightpoint Health. He now lives on Staten Island.

“Michael Grimm will make short work of Max Rose,” confidently says Michael Caputo, a Trump adviser working on the Grimm campaign. But a Republican insider on Staten Island isn’t so sure, pointing out that Rose is running a campaign reminiscent of Connor Lamb, who recently won a special congressional election in western Pennsylvania. Like Lamb, Rose is a young, photogenic veteran who has adopted moderate positions for a conservative district. “I’d be concerned if Grimm was the nominee,” the insider said. “Dan has a better shot.” 

Rose, for his part, is spoiling for a fight, apparently figuring that pugnacity will play well in the district. “I can beat either one of them,” Rose told me, adding that he would do so by such a large margin that neither Republican would ever seek office again. More credible was his claim that NY-11 is a swing district, one that votes Republican but could be persuaded to vote Democrat. And if it does, it might mean that the victory Republicans achieved on Nov., 8, 2016, was more fragile than they ever imagined.

I asked Rose if he thought Grimm was fit for office.

“He’s a liar,” Rose said. That’s better than what a Donovan staffer called Grimm while we chatted at a dinner for veterans: “psychopath.” 

Grimm has heard it all, and either he doesn’t really hear it or he doesn’t care. His light-blue eyes betray nothing, while his cheeks pull automatically up into a smile whenever a voter approaches. He shakes hands, poses for pictures, and moves on, crisscrossing the island, talking about Sandy, the state of the roads and bridges, and how he took down bad guys at the FBI. And then he was taken down himself. Only that was years ago. Redemption is close. Michael Grimm can feel it.

Former N.Y.C. congressman Michael Grimm  announces he will try to recapture his seat. (Photo: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/AP)

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