Politics

04.29.14

Michael Grimm’s Unhappily Ever After

He was true Tea Party at the movement’s height and was New York City Democrats’ priority No. 1—but the Republican still rode to victory in 2012. Now he faces a 20-count indictment.

Michael Grimm came up from Staten Island to meet me in the Gramercy neighborhood of Manhattan, and we went out for coffee at an overpriced Swedish café near my office. It was 2009, and I was reporting for a newspaper that obsessively covered New York politics. I was working on a profile of Mike McMahon, the incumbent Democrat congressman from a district representing Staten Island and a small slice of southern Brooklyn.

McMahon was one of the few Democrats in Congress to vote against Obamacare. His advisers said it was a necessary piece of positioning. Although New York City is overwhelming Democratic, the 11th Congressional District fits the profile of a blue-collar suburb, voting for John McCain in 2008. Until McMahon won in a scandal-scarred year for the local GOP, the district had sent Republicans to Congress for more than two decades.

Still, Grimm faced an uphill battle, to say the least. I think I agreed to meet with him to get a sense of exactly how uphill, in order to show just how cautious McMahon was being in distancing himself from the White House. Although Staten Island had a purplish hue, Republicans seemed like a political party that would soon disappear from New York state. Every statewide office was held by a Democrats, Democrats had control of the Legislature for the first time in 40 years, and even deeply rural and assumed to be conservative districts upstate were being won by Democrats. The Tea Party wave, which would crest a few months later, still seemed far out to shore.

And over coffee, Grimm seemed monstrously unprepared for a campaign, let alone Congress. He had a coiled intensity about him, as if he were sitting not so much for an interview but waiting for the coach to call his number so he could suit up. He couldn’t answer even the fattest softballs thrown at him. Why was he running? What was his argument against the moderate McMahon, who was so willing to buck his own party orthodoxy? All I remember is Grimm saying over and over again, in his thick Brooklyn accent, some variation of “de taxes” or “de spending” or “Nancy Pelosi.”

Now Grimm has pleaded not guilty to a 20-count indictment and is free on a $400,000 bond for, among other allegations, skimming more than $1 million from a health food restaurant that he owned from 2006 until he won election, less than a year after fulminating over a latte about Pelosi and de spending.

Even back then though, there was something about the guy that no one could quite pin down but that somehow just didn’t seem right. Perhaps his story was too perfect. The decorated Iraq War vet who joins the FBI, who goes undercover to bust white-collar criminals and who volunteers in World Trade Center cleanup efforts? It was like something cooked up in a Republican mastermind’s home lab.

On Monday, he stood before a federal courthouse in Brooklyn and told reporters he was innocent of the charges against him and that he was “a moral man.”

And so even though he had no political experience and few ties to his district, he drove his opponents crazy. Why was there no record of him working the pile at ground zero? Why did he leave the military to join the FBI? Why did he leave the FBI to get into business? The simple answers—that records of the 9/11 cleanup were notoriously incomplete, or that he simply desired a career change—were dismissed as naïve. Grimm was taken as Manchurian from the start. In his primary that year, his Republican opponent thundered that the candidate need to “reveal himself” and accused Grimm of passing out campaign photographs of himself wearing military medals that he did not earn.

Grimm called his opponent “a petulant child,” wondered aloud how somehow who “hasn’t served a day in his life” could question his battlefield valor, and stomped to victory in the primary.

Grimm ended up getting under McMahon’s skin, too. Their campaign brought Grimm’s ex-wife, who happened to be the daughter of a big Democratic donor, to the front row of a debate. Their hope was to rattle the newcomer, but the incident just embarrassed the incumbent.

And that was not the only embarrassment. Grimm had become involved with a mysterious, mostly Israel-based Kabbalist rabbi to the stars named Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto. A large share of Grimm’s money had come from Pinto’s followers, and since Grimm was a Catholic who had no experience on issues relating to Israel, it seemed odd that a single Jewish congregation would be bankrolling his campaign. The McMahon campaign handed me an oppo file on the matter labeled “Grimm Jewish Money” and gave me permission to publish its contents.

When I called Grimm for comment, he went into high dudgeon, outraged that a rival would be singling out his supporters by religion, and the incident was considered crucial in his two-point victory over McMahon that fall. (Later, it was revealed that a close aide to Pinto helped arrange for the rabbi’s followers to elide campaign finance limits in donating to the campaign.)

After the election, Grimm didn’t credit much of any of that for his win. When I ran into him at City Hall in New York, he described his victory as the product of a mere force of will. He said he knew that if he just put his mind to it, he would prevail, and voilà, he had. Nothing else—the missteps by his opponents, the political wave that swept Democrats out of office—mattered much, in the end.

Once in office, Grimm was a useful guy to have around for a local political reporter. He was true honest to-god Tea Party at the height of the movement. He wasn’t afraid to criticize his fellow Republicans, but he was able to explain at length why it was a mistake to raise the debt ceiling. He stumbled often enough to make for consistently good copy, as when he voted to repeal Obamacare while keeping his own congressional health care, explaining his reasoning as, “What am I, not supposed to have health care? It’s practicality. I’m not going to become a burden for the state because I don’t have health care.” He also threatened to throw a local television reporter off a congressional balcony.

And he seemed to relish his role as a local bad boy. He would hold town halls in deeply Democratic sections of his district, and after his presentation on budgeting, the conversation would inevitably turn toward abortion. Grimm is firmly anti-abortion rights, and he would rail against “taxpayer”-funded abortions while his constituents rained insults on him. Grimm just opened his arms, as if he welcomed their abuse.

And despite a federal investigators poking around his fundraising history, and despite the city’s Democratic establishment making him priority No. 1, Grimm easily won re-election in 2012. He seemed like the politician who couldn’t lose.

Until Monday, when he stood before a federal courthouse in Brooklyn and told reporters that he was the victim of a political witch hunt, that he was innocent of the charges against him and that he was “a moral man.”

Whether that’s true will soon be determined in a court of law, and at long last the mystery of who exactly Michael Grimm is will go a long way to being uncovered.