Politics

01.31.14

Grimm’s Dysfunctional District

Think your local politicos are wacky? The New Yorkers represented by the ‘I’ll throw you off this balcony’ congressman—and his bizarre predecessors—may have you beat.

Sure, Florida has its coke-snorting congressman. And Tennessee has Rep. Steve Cohen, who once explained that he was tweeting with a buxom blonde 35 years his junior during the State of the Union not because she was his girlfriend, but because she was his long-lost daughter (she turned out to be neither). And Texas has one congressman who disappears for days on end and another who warns of an outbreak of terror babies across the land.

But no congressional district in the land has, regardless of who holds it, been able to put together quite a bizarre run the last half-decade or so quite like New York’s 11th, covering all of Staten Island and a small part of Brooklyn.  When its current representative, Michael Grimm, threatened after this year’s State of the Union to toss a television reporter off a congressional balcony, it was actually only about midway on the long list of embarrassing turns in the spotlight the usually sedate, suburban district has undergone in the past several years.

To understand how someone sent by 85,000 of his neighbors to represent them in Washington, D.C.,  could tell a correspondent for a quasi public-access television network that “I will break you in half. Like a boy” on live television, it is worth going back a few years. One does not ascend a balcony alone, after all.

Rather, it takes a series of events conspiring to click into place at exactly the right moment—events that in this case include a mysterious second family in the D.C. suburbs, a rabbi to the stars, and a B-movie career that never quite panned out.

But let’s back up a moment. For nearly a quarter century, one family dominated politics on Staten Island, the so-called fifth and forgotten borough of New York City. That family, the Molinaris, included the patriarch, Guy, first elected to the then-17th Congressional District (although the numbers have changed, the basic contours of the district have not). He later bequeathed the seat to his daughter, Susan, and when she decided to give up lawmaking in favor of lobbying, the Molinaris turned to Vito Fossella, a Republican city councilman from one of the borough’s most celebrated Democratic families.

Fossella held the job for a dozen years and likely could have held it for a dozen more had the New York Giants not won the 2008 Super Bowl. But win the Big Blue did, and so were treated that spring to a reception at the White House. Between that party and an earlier reception for the Irish prime minister, Fossella showed up at a D.C. tavern stumbling drunk with a buddy of his, who promptly passed out in a chair.

That evening, he was arrested for driving at twice the legal alcohol limit in the Northern Virginia suburbs, telling police that he was going to visit his daughter. What sounded like just a lame excuse—since the Congressman and his wife lived with their three children on Staten Island—became all the more curious when it was revealed that someone named Laura Fay, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who lived nearby, had fetched him from the lockup.

The New Yorker reported that when Grimm was an FBI agent, he got into a fight at a nightclub, brandished a gun, and instructed all of the white people to leave for their own safety.

But it started to make a lot more sense when it came out a few days later that Fossella perhaps was in fact visiting his daughter, one he had with Fay (the two met during a congressional junket to Malta when she was an Air Force liaison), to the apparent surprise of his wife back in New York. After an onslaught of media coverage, Fossella decided the lobbying game looked more attractive to him as well.

Since the Molinari days, Staten Island had long been an oasis of conservatisms among the liberal bastion of New York, with a sociological profile more akin to New Jersey than to Brooklyn. A Democratic city councilman, Dominic Recchia, had been lining up to take Fossella on, but there was one problem—Recchia was from the Brooklyn sliver of the district. And since Staten Islanders have a history of thinking anything north of the Ferry Terminal is out to get them, Recchia was shunted aside.

He was replaced by Mike McMahon, a sober-minded city councilman with deep roots in Democratic politics in the city. Republicans selected Francis Powers, a local powerbroker, who, despite his deep ties to Fossella, they hoped had a chance of keeping the seat. That notion was disrupted when Powers’ son, Fran, decided to seek the seat himself—on the libertarian line. The two began trading barbs in the media, with father saying of the son that “he’s rejected everyone’s help to live a healthy lifestyle.” The son, who worked as a carpenter and played mandolin in a band called Box of Crayons, took a page from the GOP attack playbook and recounted to a reporter all the cards he gives his father—Christmas, Birthday, and Father’s Day.

The prospect of Powers vs. Powers was derailed when the younger man lost his libertarian primary to a receptionist from a local radio station, and the older Powers dropped dead of a heart attack soon after he was officially nominated. At this point, a ladybug from Brooklyn could have probably soared to election, as McMahon ultimately did, becoming the first Democrat to represent the district in close to 30 years.

Once in office, McMahon found himself representing a right-leaning district just as the Tea Party wave was building. As the 2010 elections approached, the GOP was torn between Grimm, a former FBI agent, and Michael Allegretti, the scion of a prominent fuel-oil family that was investigated for its ties to the Gambino crime family—and one of people involved in that investigation was one Michael Grimm.

The primary got ugly. Allegretti accused Grimm, a former Marine who served in the first Gulf War, of making up stories of his wartime bravery, and Grimm shooting back, “You sleep under a blanket of freedom that I helped provide.” The infighting got so bad that the Staten Island Republican Party endorsed Fossella, who then began mulling a comeback.

In the end, Grimm won, and as the Tea Party wave crept closer, McMahon’s campaign got jittery. They were curious about thousands of dollars of out-of-state contributions Grimm had received from people associated with a rabbi named Yosef Pinto, a Kabbalist who speaks little English and who has counseled LeBron James and Donny Deutsch. In an effort to spark journalistic interest in the matter, they compiled a spreadsheet with all of Grimm’s Pinto-related donations and labeled it GRIMM JEWISH MONEY, and proceeded to hand the dossier to a reporter (full disclosure: this reporter). McMahon was forced to repair relations with Staten Island’s Jewish community, and beat back allegations that he was trying to paint his opponent as a puppet in some worldwide Hebraic conspiracy.

When the two met for a debate a few days before Election Day, the McMahon campaign brought Grimm’s ex-wife along, as well as her father and brothers, and put them in the front row in an apparent effort to rattle Grimm. The ruse didn’t work, and the ex-Marine squeaked to victory.

It was not until Grimm got to office, however, that things got really weird. The FBI began investigating Grimm’s ties to Pinto, especially whether or not he used an associate of the rabbi to go around campaign contribution limits in exchange for help with immigration issues. There were stories of cash received in envelopes. A close business associate was revealed to be a convicted felon. A fundraiser was arrested for making illegal campaign contributions. The New Yorker reported that when Grimm was an FBI agent, he got into a fight at a nightclub, brandished a gun, and instructed all of the white people in the club to leave for their own safety. 

He looked like an easy target in 2012, and rumors of a Fossella comeback again flared. But the Democrats nominated Mark Murphy, whose father, John Murphy, was the last Democrat to hold the seat in the 1980s and who ended up getting indicted in the Abscam scandal. The younger Murphy had only recently moved back to Staten Island after spending time in California, where he had the great misfortune (from a political standpoint at least) to be cast in a handful of B-movies, including a Dukes of Hazard sequel and playing Jimmy Connors in a dramatization of the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match.

Grimm won fairly easily, but trouble hasn’t ceased to follow him—and the fundraising investigation is ongoing. It was only a few months ago, during the government shutdown, that Grimm was spotted disappearing for a long time—for a verrry long time into a bar bathroom with a young woman.

Democrats on Staten Island, meanwhile, are positively gleeful over all of this, confident that at last they will win back the seat and that perhaps a degree of normality will return to the Island. Their chosen candidate, of course, is Dominic Recchia, the same guy who stepped aside in 2010 because he didn’t live on the Island.

Rumors of a Fossella comeback, meanwhile, continue.