Rep. Michael McMahon (D)
New York 13th District
Staten Island is part of New York City, yet is a land apart, closer geographically and culturally to New Jersey than to the city’s other boroughs. The sixth-largest island in the continental U.S., its inclusion in Greater New York as part of the great 1898 consolidation was something of an afterthought. It was connected to the rest of the city only by ferry or through Bayonne, N.J., until the Verrazano Narrows Bridge—one of Robert Moses’s last and most impressive infrastructure achievements—opened to traffic in 1965. Hilly Staten Island (or Richmond County) is the state’s southernmost county, one-tenth as densely populated as Manhattan, and that’s after it grew 22% between 1990 and 2004, the fastest growth rate of any county in New York state. Its rate of home ownership, 70%, is nearly double that of the rest of New York City and nearly meets the national average. Ethnically, the 13th District has the highest percentage of residents of Italian ancestry in the nation. The signs on coffee shops read Caffe and on delicatessens, Salumeria. The Staten Island Ferry docks at St. George, the home of the Staten Island Yankees’ new ballpark. The north and south shores that spread out from there are notable for their pleasant Victorian homes, while the island’s west shore is industrial marshland, with plans for the eventual development of a 2,200-acre park—more than twice as large as Central Park—on top of the now-closed Fresh Kills dump. Staten Island’s interior consists of blocks of suburbia alternating with scrubland that’s rapidly being turned into suburbia. Population growth, plus a shortage of mass transit, has brought significant traffic congestion to the island, which is more dependent on cars than the other boroughs.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Culturally, Staten Islanders are more conservative than people from the boroughs, particularly the Manhattanites who live a 20-minute ferry ride away. Taking a cue from Fresh Kills, their motto is “Don’t dump on us.” Not many people here read the New York Times; the local paper is the Staten Island Advance. Fed up with the city’s high income taxes and social programs, Staten Island residents voted in 1993 for secession, but the Legislature never acted to carry out their wish. In that same election, Staten Islanders provided the margin of victory for Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose agenda of cutting crime and welfare rolls soothed the secessionist fervor. The Giuliani years produced an economic boom, with a new ferry terminal, additional shops and hundreds of new houses near cleaned-up beaches. The biggest victory was the closing of Fresh Kills in 2001, though it opened again temporarily for the cleanup of the World Trade Center site. The September 11 attacks killed nearly 250 residents of Staten Island. They made up nearly 10% of the dead and nearly a fourth of all the firefighters who died.
The 13th Congressional District of New York is made up of Staten Island plus Brooklyn neighborhoods with similar demographics. These include heavily Catholic and Italian Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst, middle-class enclaves with large single-family brownstones that are nowhere near a subway stop and thus impervious to the gentrification spreading across Brooklyn. The entertainment industry has found some memorable characters in these neighborhoods: The Three Stooges (Moe, Curly and Shemp) grew up in Bensonhurst, which also was the home to the fictional Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners. John Travolta danced to fame in the film Saturday Night Fever on the streets of Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge. The district also includes Gravesend, with its large population of Sephardic Jews, and Fort Hamilton, the only active-duty military base in New York City and one of the oldest military posts still in operation in the United States.
The 13th is seeing a rising number of immigrants. There are growing numbers of Muslims in Bay Ridge and an influx of newcomers from West Africa, Mexico, South America, Southeast Asia, and Russia in white ethnic neighborhoods near St. George. But Staten Island remains New York’s whitest borough and has the fewest immigrants. It is only 7% black and 14% Hispanic. Voters here solidly backed Republican George Pataki for governor and gave then-Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg his slim winning margin in 2001. The district voted 52%-44% for Democrat Al Gore in 2000, but snapped back to Republican George W. Bush four years later, 55%-45%. In 2008, it voted for McCain 51%-49%.
Rep. Michael McMahon (D)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: Sept. 12, 1957, Staten Island .
Home: Staten Island.
Education: NYU., B.A. 1980, NY Law School, J.D. 1985; U. of Heidelberg, A.S. 1982.
Family: Married (Judith); 2 children.
Elected office: NY City Cncl., 2001-08
Professional Career: Counsel, NY St. Assemblymen Eric Vitaliano & Elizabeth Connelly, 1987-2000; Partner, O'Leary, McMahon & Spero, 1993-2008
The new congressman from the 13th District of New York is Michael McMahon, a Democrat who won the seat in 2008 after Republican Rep. Vito Fossella tumbled into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons. A drunk-driving arrest in Virginia led to revelations about an extramarital affair and a child born out of wedlock. Three weeks after his arrest, Fossella, a one-time rising GOP star, announced that he would retire.
|Michael McMahon (D-WF)||114,219||(61%)||($1,272,811)|
|Robert Straniere (R)||62,441||(33%)||($162,474)|
|Timothy Cochrane (C)||5,799||(3%)|
|Carmine Morano (Ind)||4,947||(3%)||($51,424)|
|Michael McMahon (D)||11,792||(74%)|
|Stephen Harrison (D)||3,885||(26%)|
A lifelong Staten Islander and self-described moderate, McMahon grew up in Stapleton, the middle child of seven children. His father was as an insurance underwriter, and his mother, a German immigrant, worked as a hotel bookkeeper. While bartending and waiting tables, he earned a degree in political science and history from New York University. He spent two years at the University of Heidelberg in Germany studying to teach German, then returned home to get his law degree at New York Law School. McMahon practiced law as a counsel to two state Assembly members from Staten Island and as a partner at the law firm of O’Leary, McMahon and Spero. While working for the Assembly, McMahon helped write legislation in the early 1990s that would have let Staten Island secede from New York City. He has said that since then, better borough planning and a more attentive mayoral administration under Bloomberg have put the secession question to rest. In 2001, McMahon ran for the New York City Council on the island’s North Shore. He won the Democratic primary by a narrow 170-vote margin but easily won the seat that November. As a councilman, he worked to keep the Fresh Kills dump closed, to increase service for the Staten Island Ferry and to require nurses in all city schools. The national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee long viewed McMahon as a promising candidate in the district, but McMahon had resisted their entreaties.
In 2008, after a year of the Fossella scandal—an unending political drama all but gift-wrapped for headline writers at the New York Post—Republicans lost their dominance in Staten Island. After the incumbent announced that he would not seek re-election, McMahon jumped into the primary race, where he faced Brooklyn lawyer Stephen Harrison, the Democratic candidate against Fossella in 2006. The borough’s Democratic and Working Families parties immediately endorsed McMahon, and the DCCC quickly followed suit. Harrison refused to drop his campaign, charging that McMahon was not a true Democrat. But the longtime councilman compiled a long roster of support that included local labor unions, Democrats from the city’s House delegation and both U.S. senators from New York. He cruised to victory by a 3-to-1 margin in the September primary.
The open seat should have portended a competitive race, but a situation that had started out badly for the GOP only got worse. The party’s choice to replace Fossella, retired Wall Street executive Frank Powers, died of a heart attack in June. To replace him, Republicans turned to Robert Straniere, a controversial former assemblyman rejected by much of the GOP establishment because of his questionable business dealings and past battles with other local Republicans. Straniere criticized McMahon for supporting a property-tax increase on the City Council in 2002; McMahon countered that the hike was needed to salvage the city’s finances after the terrorist attacks. With his own party divided over his candidacy, Straniere never had much of a chance against the well-funded McMahon, who outspent Straniere 9-to-1 and picked up endorsements from Bloomberg and Conservative Party Borough President James Molinaro. He won easily, beating Straniere 61% to 33%. He won by wide margins everywhere but in the Republican strongholds on the South Shore, where he ran nearly even with Straniere. He became the first Democrat in 28 years to represent Staten Island.
McMahon was given seats on the Foreign Affairs and Transportation and Infrastructure committees. He had sought a spot on the Transportation panel in order to try to secure federal money to expand ferry service and to construct rail lines on the north and west shores. In his first few months in the House, McMahon was a party-line voter in the House and supported President Obama’s $787 billion economic-stimulus bill. His first bill mandated confidential mental-health screenings for military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.