Convicted Felon Michael Grimm Is More Popular Than the Pope to Some Staten Island Voters

The former congressman is defying political gravity. Will his past catch up to him?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

STATEN ISLAND, New York—This coming Tuesday, when she heads to the polls to vote in the Republican primary race between Rep. Dan Donovan and his challenger, former Rep. Michael Grimm, a man who once threatened to throw a reporter off a “fucking balcony” and who pleaded guilty to tax evasion before resigning from office, Veronica Petersen will face the easiest political decision of her life.

“I don’t care if they get the pope here,” she said. “I don’t care if they get the head of the universe here. It’s not going to fly. The people of Staten Island want Grimm.”

The 63-year-old retired educator had gathered with over a dozen supporters in the blistering heat on a sidewalk where, just six years ago, Hurricane Sandy had razed the adjoining houses to the ground. They were there at 11 a.m. because Grimm, a local folk hero on Staten Island, was going to be there at 11 a.m.

Petersen knew him long before he had arrived at the corner of Cedar Grove Avenue and Maple Terrace. She had lost her home in Tottenville, the southernmost tip of Staten Island, when Sandy hit. And Grimm was there for her—crying with her, offering help, and checking in on neighbors.

“It’s like someone comes and gives you food when you’re laying in the road—you’re always going to remember that person who helped you,” she explained.

It’s that shared moment of despair and trauma that has given many Republican voters in New York’s 11th Congressional District the permission structure to forgive Grimm for some of his most notorious transgressions. It may be what leads him to victory on June 26; and, from there, back to Congress.

“I know sometimes his passion gets in front of him but the bottom line is he’s real,” Louis Savarese, a 67-year-old real estate broker, said. “He cares about this country. He cares about where we’re going.”

Grimm, he added in a follow-up email, was a “hero.”

Outside of Staten Island, and a patch of southern Brooklyn included in the district, the country probably best knows Michael Grimm as a hothead. He was the congressman who infamously threatened to break a reporter for NY1 “in half” inside the Capitol building in 2014. From there, things got worse. The steely blue-eyed former Marine resigned his seat in early 2015 after pleading guilty to felony tax evasion. Prosecutors contended that Grimm, who previously ran a restaurant on the Upper East Side, had concealed more than $1 million in restaurant receipts and failed to report incomes in order to lower his tax payments. In the 20-count indictment, Grimm was also charged with perjury, wire fraud, obstruction of justice, and employment of undocumented immigrants. He went on to serve seven months in jail for a single felony charge of tax fraud and was released in May of 2016.

Just over a year later, he decided to seek his seat again.

What has ensued has been a nasty primary against the man who took over his seat—Dan Donovan, a former district attorney—waged predominantly over who among them is more loyal to the president.

Grimm argues that he’s that man because of Donovan’s votes against the House Obamacare repeal bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and his initial opposition to funding cuts for “sanctuary cities.”

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Donovan, for his part, has readied answers to all these charges; noting that the ACA repeal bill would create a tax hike on city residents; that the tax bill crushed New York’s state and local tax deduction; that he later introduced a bill in 2018 that would withhold funds from cities with a “sanctuary” policy.

Those are policy arguments though. The main card he plays is about matters of personnel. He has the better of the Trump world endorsers. Grimm got former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. Donovan got the president’s lawyer and adviser Rudy Giuliani.

Oh, and he got the president as well.

At the end of May, Trump tweeted his support for Donovan and even included a warning that Grimm’s selection as the nominee could imperil the seat for the party. “Remember Alabama,” the president wrote referencing Judge Roy Moore’s loss in a special election for the Senate last year.

That appears to be both the main argument and the conventional wisdom of the Republican establishment and numerous pundits and prognosticators. Grimm, they think, simply is too radioactive to be a viable nominee.

And yet, a good chunk of voters on Staten Island could care less.

“He served his country honorably,” Roland Beltran, a 76-year-old registered independent said, referring to Grimm’s Marine Corps service. “I watched the debate and I thought he presented himself much more professionally than Mr. Donovan.”

The appeal of Grimm in the district is visceral. Many voters feel a personal connection. They like that he served in the Marine Corps and that he’s relentless. His take-no-shit attitude can anger some but it’s viewed among his fans as symptomatic of his unbridled enthusiasm. To them, he is cut from the same cloth as Trump—certainly more so than the buttoned-down Donovan—which makes it all the more perplexing that Trump himself doesn’t see it. And so, they believe, the president simply has chosen not to.

“I don’t think he did his research,” Savarese surmised. “I think he’s a very busy guy. And I think he took it without digging into it.”

Grimm, for his part, claims he isn’t sweating Trump’s tweet.

“Voters are a lot smarter than most give them credit for,” he told The Daily Beast. “People are going to vote based on who they think is going to do the best job for them and in a primary like this where it’s very supportive of President Trump—my district loves our president—they’re going to vote for the guy who they think is going to help the president pass his agenda.”

On a Wednesday evening in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Grimm strode into the Italian restaurant L&B Spumoni Gardens, with all the confidence of a king about to reclaim his throne. A consummate schmoozer, he paused at each table covered by umbrellas, asking, “You guys get some food yet?” He then made his way to the back of the restaurant where a few posters bearing his face were peeling off the wall. He was going there to give his speech. But his presence had created a small-scale frenzy as voters huddled in the narrow passageways between tables, causing a traffic jam as restaurant staff brought out plate after plate of calzones and antipasto salad on human torso-sized dinner plates.

As the sun set, a tanned and tieless Grimm remained outside, hugging and greeting supporters, flanked by campaign signs with the phrase: “He’s still got our back.” One man grabbed Grimm’s attention for a brief chat and a selfie. It was 38-year-old Ayton Eller who sported an Infowars.com Trump/Pence 2020 shirt that he got for $5 as well as a yarmulke from the Jerusalem embassy opening with Trump’s face on it.

“Staten Island was devastated and you know he turned it around really,” Eller said of his support for the once congressman-turned-congressional aspirant. “These other like petty things about these politicians and how they got him on some kind of tax evasion. You know, they always try to get somebody on that. I think that was a whole Obama thing. He was around for eight years and they were trying to get some dirty stuff on Michael Grimm. I’m not in the Deep State so I don’t know all the politics behind it.”

Grimm’s troubled past may be cast aside by his devotees. But it remains firmly a focus of the race. As the campaign comes to its crescendo, he and Donovan have even argued over whether the latter sought a pardon for Grimm from the president.

During an interview at the restaurant after his brief address, the former congressman declined to rehash what may or may not have happened in terms of this bizarre request.

“Frankly, I think it’s become a bit of a distraction now,” he said. “And I really don’t want to perpetuate that distraction because frankly, and to be blunt, no one in my district that’s going to vote in this primary gives a rat’s patoot about that conversation. What they care about is who is going to help their families, who’s going to increase small business opportunities, and who’s going to work their tail off.”

And maybe he’s right.

Grimm seems to know that many voters could look past his conviction, the viral clip of his temper tantrum, the words of the president, and maybe everything else in between. Whether he’s zipping from table to table at Italian eateries or holding court in front of dilapidated houses wrecked by a damaging storm, he possesses an unteachable quality that helped Trump defy all the expectations against him: a ceaseless, perhaps naive, confidence.

“Danny has just about every endorsement you can have,” Grimm summed it up to The Daily Beast. “I have the people.”