new york city

It’s Never Been Easier to Be a Felon Running for Congress

Though Trump has endorsed his opponent, former congressman and convicted felon Michael Grimm is counting on his connection to the MAGA set. Photo: Dennis Van Tine/Star Max/IPx/AP

Michael Grimm strode into his campaign office, his arms outstretched, pulling his half-a-size too small blue suit tight across his brawny physique, to give double waves and double air-kisses to the room of mostly elderly volunteers for his unlikely comeback campaign for Congress.

Grimm’s headquarters is in the same basement of the same strip mall, between the Baya Bar acai shop and a place advertising “fingerprinting services” that served as his campaign office when he first won election in the tea party wave of 2010. And he has returned to it, not long before he will stand before the voters of Staten Island and South Brooklyn, to do something he has been avoiding in the closing days of the race: talk to the media.

This was prompted by an announcement that Mike Bloomberg was going to spend more than $80 million to help Democrats take the House in the midterm elections, since, as he saw it, the GOP had failed to “safeguard ethics, prevent the abuse of power, and preserve the rule of law.”

But Bloomberg had also given $5,400 to Grimm’s opponent, incumbent Republican Representative Dan Donovan, and hosted him for fund-raisers at his townhouse over the years, so Grimm was ready to pounce.

“I am here today to call on my opponent Dan Donovan to return Mayor Bloomberg’s money and whatever money they raised at Mayor Bloomberg’s’ elite fund-raiser for him in Manhattan,” Grimm said, adding. “I think he should return that money, he should return the money from whatever elites went to that fund-raiser. He should denounce the efforts of Mayor Bloomberg to flip the house to Democrat.”

Never mind for the moment that Donovan hadn’t held a fund-raiser at Bloomberg’s townhouse in years, that Grimm himself called Bloomberg, “a pretty good mayor,” giving him a B/B+ for his stewardship of the city, or that Grimm with his long rap sheet — eight months in prison for federal tax fraud; threatening to toss a local reporter off the Capitol balcony; reportedly waving a gun around a Queens night club; ties to a member of the Gambino crime family; inventing a story about his political enemies breaking into his campaign office to steal personal data; consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt members of Congress — spent most of his four years in Congress fending off a federal investigation into his own fund-raising practices. (A top aide went to jail for funneling more than $10,000 into his first race; Grimm denied knowledge of any wrongdoing.)

In any normal political culture, in any other year, all of this would be disqualifying for someone seeking elective office, especially in a primary against someone with a better-than-average chance to hold the seat in November.

But for Grimm’s supporters, all of this is very much the point. The prison time? “Every restaurant in America has illegals in the back. Are you kidding me? This is from Chuck Schumer, Barack Obama and Loretta Lynch who wanted him gone,” said Lenny Di Roma, 59, a truck driver and a Grimm volunteer. Threaten a reporter? “Oh c’mon. I have had moment when I wanted to push somebody or kill somebody in anger. This guy just pushed his buttons all the wrong way. It was one incident!” said Kathy Connell, a retired Citibank bank manager and a Grimm volunteer.

Incumbent Rep. Dan Donovan speaks to supporters and participants as he attends a property tax protest rally in the Staten Island on Saturday, June 23, 2018. In the background is a campaign billboard advertising President Trump's endorsement on Donovan.
Incumbent Rep. Dan Donovan speaks to supporters and participants as he attends a property tax protest rally in the Staten Island on Saturday, June 23, 2018. In the background is a campaign billboard advertising President Trump’s endorsement on Donovan. Photo: Craig Ruttle/AP

Donovan, meanwhile, is the kind of Republican you would want to date your daughter. A former prosecutor in Robert Morgenthau’s office, he worked his way up in local government, serving as district attorney of Staten Island for over a decade. He ran a strong race for attorney general and was talked about as a potential gubernatorial candidate down the road. With faint wisps of hair combed across his bald pate and dancing eyebrows, Donovan has a sort aw-shucks air about him that has turned into a “I can’t believe this is happening to me” disbelief as he finds himself down in the polls to the convicted felon.

“I think he just wants this to be over with,” said one friend.

There is nothing about Donovan that screams, “Own the Libs.” Grimm, meanwhile, is a the perfect man for a moment when Republican primary voters rally around candidates not despite the fact that they act in ways no decent person should, but because of it. Witness Roy Moore, who many Republicans stood behind even after he was accused of child molestation. Or Greg Gianforte, the Montana congressman who saw the same reaction after he body-slammed a reporter. Or any of the slate of candidates Steve Bannon (who has endorsed Grimm) wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, an eclectic mix of names that included former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, chemtrail conspiracy theorist Kelli Ward, and Chris McDaniel, who once attended a neo-Confederate convention and has disparaged blacks and Latinos on his radio show, and who all share nothing in common except a desire to spit in the doughy faces of Republican incumbents.

That those incumbents are rock-ribbed conservatives who rarely deviate from party orthodoxy and who spent years building up the GOP hardly matters; they are in office, so they are immediately suspect. To be a Republican running for reelection now is to know that there are four words that signal an immediate death warrant: Endorsed. By. Mitch. McConnell. (Or Paul Ryan.) Grimm seemed to lose his main reason for running when President Trump, the apple-cart upsetter to end all apple-cart upsetters, endorsed Donovan, fearful that a Grimm win would mean surrendering the seat to the Democrats. But on Staten Island, Grimm supporters square this circle simply: Ryan and McConnell got to Trump.

“The president, he was forced to support him,” Connell said. “The speaker of the House, the Speaker of the Senate, they don’t want to lose a Republican seat.”

Donovan, she added, was supported by every single Republican elected official on Staten Island. This was a major reason to vote against him, a sentiment echoed by others.

“Dan Donovan, he is the swamp. He is the swamp right here on Staten Island,” said Louis Saverese, a 67-year-old real estate agent.

Grimm leaves US District Court after he pleaded guilty to one count of felony tax fraud.
Grimm leaving US District Court in 2014 after he pleaded guilty to one count of felony tax fraud. Photo: Michael Graae/Getty Images

So far in the Republican primaries, the candidate who wins isn’t the most conservative, or the most effective or the most experienced; it is the one most willing to kick the establishment in the shins and pledge undying fealty to Donald Trump against the hordes of Bloombergian elites sprinkled across the media, the deep state and the Democratic party intent on tearing him down. “We have to get to Washington to have our president’s back. So I thank you. And eventually he is going to thank you too,” Grimm told his volunteers, a winking message that reiterated their belief that Trump endorsed Donovan with his fingers crossed behind his back.

It remains to be seen if this bank shot will work on Staten Island however, and if electing a convicted felon is a Verrazano Bridge too far for the Forgotten Borough. A NY1/Sienna poll released in early June had Grimm up by ten, but that was before the Trump endorsement. Another poll from a firm aligned with Donovan this week had Donovan up seven. Grimm will have to win without the institutional players — the unions, the Super PACs, the party leaders, that will be working to get out the vote for Donovan. Both campaigns are going dark from the media in the race’s final days, focusing on pulling out their voters, ready, at last, for the circus to end.

It’s Never Been Easier to Be a Felon Running for Congress