Only in Staten Island
Will Dirty Pol Vito Fossella Replace Dirty Pol Michael Grimm?
Staten Island Republican Michael Grimm is resigning from Congress over a tax-evasion scandal—and his most famous potential successor left the House six years ago over a sex scandal.
Anthony Weiner sexted with scores of women, only getting caught when a photo of his crotch went viral, and still ran for mayor two years later. Eliot Spitzer spent more than $15,000 on high-price prostitutes, and after resigning his governorship in disgrace, ran for New York City comptroller five years later. Rep. Charlie Rangel was censured by the House of Representatives and was urged by the president of the United States to step aside, and he still ran and won re-election—three more times.
And now to this list of New York pols who refuse to go away, it may be possible to add another name: Vito Fossella.
The former Staten Island congressman was one of New York City’s most prominent Republicans, regularly winning re-election by double digits. He was often talked about as a future New York mayor.
But all of that came to an end in 2008, when the 43-year-old Fossella got a little too sloshed at a White House reception honoring the New York Giants Super Bowl victory and was arrested for driving under the influence in northern Virginia. The scandal could have been the kind that amounts to a mere hiccup in the baroque New York political scene, but it became a bit more serious when it was revealed that Fossella, a married father of three, had been cruising around the D.C. suburbs because he was off to see his mistress, with whom he had fathered a child—a fact that was revealed when Fossella called the woman to pick him up from his overnight stay in jail.
But now that Rep. Michael Grimm is joining the crowded club of New York politicians who have resigned in disgrace, is Fossella ready to join the nearly equally crowded club of lawmakers who have mounted ill-fated comeback attempts?
“Vito’s name has come around a couple of times. He is very beloved in the Staten Island community,” said Leticia Remauro, a former Staten Island GOP chairwoman and a political consultant. “He served the community well, but he clearly has to make a decision based on why he left.”
John Catsimatidis, a supermarket magnate who lost a bid for the Republican nomination in the 2013 mayor’s race, won Staten Island, a victory many attribute to the introductions Fossella made on the island. Before Grimm announced he was stepping down, Catsimatidis used his Sunday morning AM radio show to urge the congressman to give up the seat and suggested that he support Fossella.
“Vito is the most experienced. If he wants it, it is his for the taking,” Catsimatidis told The Daily Beast by phone from the Bahamas. As for Fossella’s baggage, Catsimatidis, a major donor to Republican causes, said: “Who doesn’t have baggage? People make mistakes about sex and stuff happens.”
Catsimatidis appeared to step back a bit from his comments over the weekend, however, saying he would commission a poll to find out who was the most viable Republican—Fossella, district attorney Dan Donovan, or Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis.
Donovan, who has come under withering criticism for his inability to win an indictment against a New York City police officer in the strangulation death of Eric Garner, a black Staten Island man selling loose cigarettes, announced Tuesday morning that he was “seriously considering the race.” Although Donovan remains a popular figure on Staten Island even after the Garner grand jury decision, many island political analysts said they doubted he had many ambitions beyond the DA’s office.
Guy Molinari, a former Staten Island borough president, pushed back against that view. “It is his dream [to go to Congress] and he is going to be running,” Molinari said. “He is entitled to it. The reading I have right now is that all of the elected officials, with the exception of Malliotakis, are lining up behind Donovan.”
When Fossella was first elected to Congress in 1997 at age 32, Molinari was described as his political godfather. In the intervening years, the two had a falling out, and the tribal divisions of Staten Island’s Republican Party split between a Molinari camp and one loyal to Fossella. Molinari was an enthusiastic backer of Grimm, but when Fossella loyalists in Staten Island’s GOP leadership endorsed Fossella in 2008 even though he said he would not run in light of his scandal, Molinari attacked his protégé in unusually personal terms.
“It’s going to be ugly, it’s going to be nasty, but he has to know that would come out in the course of a campaign. Everything he has done will be brought to light by me in this campaign,” Molinari said at the time, pledging a primary battle. “I have a difficult time believing that Fossella would put his own personal ambitions above his family. His family has been through enough, and I couldn’t believe that he would be willing to put them through all of that once again.”
Fossella declined to run again, but in the years since he has mused aloud about challenging Grimm. Now that Grimm is gone, the question is whether Fossella was merely tweaking Molinari or was serious about seeking a return to Congress.
“I think he had a genuine interest in that seat,” said one Fossella ally, who said the former congressman was unlikely to challenge Donovan if the district attorney decided to run. “It’s a great gig to be the DA, and I think Danny likes doing it. The likelihood as I see it is that Donovan stays where he is.”
Fossella did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but in a television interview Tuesday night, he gave a tepid denial, saying he was “not really” interested in running again and that “my hope is that the people of Staten Island and Brooklyn go to the polls and just choose the best person for all of us.”These days the former congressman appears to have reconciled with his Staten Island family and has rebuilt his life working as a lobbyist for a firm owned by former U.S. Senator Al D’Amato. He appears frequently on television as a political commentator. If he were to run, he would have to overcome deep skepticism from Washington Republicans, who are not likely to want to replace one scandal-scarred Staten Island Republican with another scandal-scarred Staten Island Republican. The district, which also includes parts of Brooklyn, is by far the most Republican in New York City—Bill de Blasio failed to carry it even as he romped to victory in the 2013 mayor’s race—and should be a relatively easy Republican win in a special election, which conservative base voters are more likely to turn out for. But if Democrats lose this year, they think they can win the seat in 2016 riding Hillary Clinton’s coattails—something Republicans also sound keenly aware of, even if they have their own motives for discouraging a Fossella campaign.
“Under the circumstances, with the problems he has had, and in this atmosphere with the issues that are out there,” said Molinari, “I just don’t think Fossella runs.”