When Michael Grimm resigned from Congress after having been convicted of federal crimes, it seemed clear it was the end of a once-promising political career for the onetime congressman. Even in New York City, politicians don’t tend to come back from stints in federal prison.
But with five weeks to go before the June 26 Republican primary, he is leading incumbent Rep. Dan Donovan in the polls and most observers expect he will win. To call it a comeback is an understatement; this is a rise from the ashes in the weird and very particular world of Staten Island and South Brooklyn.
Some people discover God in prison, but not Grimm. He discovered Donald Trump. And in October of last year he announced he was running as one of Steve Bannon’s pro-Trump insurgent candidates, challenging Republicans who were not entirely with the president. By January, Bannon was exiled from the White House and the popular narrative that Trumpism doesn’t work down-ballot was firmly entrenched. Is Grimm the candidate who can reverse that trend? It’s looking that way.
At that time I reached out to some sources close to Staten Island politics to see how serious Grimm’s challenge to Donovan was. I asked, scale of 1-10, what are Grimm’s chances, expecting to hear two or maybe three. Time and again I heard five, six, and even higher. Those predictions have now been borne out, and Mikey Suits with his big smile and bright eyes is very close to regaining his seat. How on Earth did this happen?
Saturdays Are For The Boys
Last Saturday, on a grey and rainy morning, I found myself at the Hilton Garden Inn, part of a vast, strange complex deep in Staten Island near the Goethals Bridge. Multiple very lovely weddings seemed to be going on, but that wasn’t why I was there. I was there because Anthony Scaramucci was about to endorse and headline a fundraiser for Grimm. This was the ultimate bro affair, the political equivalent of Gronk spiking a football with a cheerleader sitting on his shoulders.
As the perhaps surprisingly diverse crowd of about 150 people waited for Mike and the Mooch in a reception room adorned with a huge American flag, I chatted with Staten Island resident Rick Salt while munching on a very good cannoli.
“I’m doing my research,” he told me, “seeing who supports the Trump agenda.” Rick was one of very few people I spoke to still on the fence on that question. The rest clearly knew it was Grimm, not Donovan who has consistently supported the president’s priorities.
The speeches by Scaramucci and Grimm were very good, fun, funny, self-deprecating, and adored by the fans. Grimm argued that his (and my) district is basically the backstop against a radical left agenda being pushed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo for New York. It all landed.
A Gifted Politician
After the event I bumped into Grimm’s communications adviser and Robert Mueller man of interest Michael Caputo in the lobby. Mike was a little tired, having jetted around from New York, DC, and Miami, where he is producing a new ballet.
“Your guy did good,” I told him. He told me Grimm is one of the best natural politicians he’s ever worked with, and I can believe it. I asked him about Bannon, if he was still at the center of these insurgent candidacies. Mike was a little cagey. He told me it’s nice to have a Steve Bannon for these kinds of things, but not necessary.
Grimm’s campaign manager, Joe Shikhman, who has been with him for a few years now, found me and told me his guy would be available for an interview in about two hours. That’s a lot of time to kill at the Hilton Garden Inn in Staten Island, but it’s my job, so I planted myself at the hotel bar and ordered some lunch. There I met Alex Nazaryan from Yahoo News, who would also be in on the sit-down. Very nice guy. We talked a little shop and got ready.
Around 4 p.m., Joe texted me and we had a smoke out front. Grimm was on his way back to the hotel. I asked if he always knew his boss would make a comeback, he indicated that he suspected so. When I wondered what Republican House leadership would make of a felon coming back to the ranks, Joe was sanguine, indicating Grimm had a good relationship with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise. In fact, he recalled, the day the federal indictment against Grimm dropped, Scalise’s office sent over a few buckets of Popeye’s chicken to the Grimm office in solidarity, a gesture appreciated and not forgotten.
When the candidate arrived we sat down with him, Joe, and another young campaign worker. Alex and I made sure we sat nowhere near a balcony. The questions came fast and furious, mostly from Alex, who after all is a reporter, not an opinion scribe like me. On his conviction, Grimm admitted fault, but argued that anyone else would simply have received a fine for his crime, which was basically paying illegal immigrants under the table.
On the issues, Grimm was sharp. Regarding the opioid crisis, he wants to work with the Department of Health and Human Services director to create a pilot program on Staten Island, which has been hard hit, and which he argues with 500,000 people in a small area serves as a good microcosm for the country. On school shootings he wants tighter security in schools, which he thinks can be achieved without making them feel like prisons.
To call Grimm’s style aggressive is probably not a strong-enough term for people who don’t live in his district. When asked about his on-camera threat to throw a reporter over the capitol balcony, he said he regretted it. I’m not so sure. I am pretty sure many of his would-be constituents don’t care. He glares and points; everything is offense.
Can The Pro-Trump Candidate Win?
One moment was telling. I suggested to Grimm that some Republicans thought his tight connection to Trump could work against him in what until recently was seen to be a blue wave election. He didn’t shy away. Instead, he told a story. Sipping his cranberry juice and soda, he looked Alex in the eyes and referring to the Democratic incumbent he defeated in 2010, Michael McMahon.
“Why did McMahon lose?” he asked. Alex and I glanced at each other, unsure. Grimm pressed the question, “Do you know?” he challenged. We did not, so he answered his own question.
“He lost because he voted against Obamacare.” Grimm was arguing that in an attempt to appeal to Republicans McMahon had thrown Obama under the bus and it made Obama voters ambivalent.
“They didn’t vote for me,” Grimm said, but they didn’t come out to vote for McMahon either. Grimm said his mentor, former Staten Island congressman Guy Molinari, taught him an important lesson: “Never alienate your base.” Does that sound familiar? It should.
State of the Race
Grimm is likely to win the Republican nomination. Frankly, Donovan is barely even running against him, and many people wonder if he actually wants to win. In a recent New York Post article about how many congressmen can’t afford an apartment in DC, Donovan is shown on a cot in his office, his palms pointing upwards as if to ask “Why am I here?” It looks like a hostage photo. It suggests that a vote for Grimm might put him out of his misery.
Is the Trump agenda something Republicans can run on nationwide? Or should they be running away from it? Grimm suggests the former. Six months ago, that might have sounded crazy. But as Trump’s approval rating rises and the congressional ballot polls narrow, Grimm is looking pretty prescient.
Today Trump will appear with Donovan in Long Island to highlight the threat from MS-13. Will he endorse the incumbent? Wait and see. Either way, Grimm is up in the polls and convinced he is headed back to Congress. If so, it’s a knock against the idea that Trumpism can’t succeed down-ballot. But, as with all things, time will tell.