Don’t Understand How Michael Grimm Can Pull Off Reelection? Visit Staten Island.

Voters are embracing the indicted congressman as one of their own, no matter that he will be in court before his next term would even begin.

Sept. 16, 2014, 3:11 p.m.

NEW YORK CITY—It’s amid hun­dreds of vin­tage Cor­vettes and Ca­dillacs that I find the people who want to vote for a con­gress­man un­der fed­er­al in­dict­ment. Take Joe, for ex­ample, a mostly bald older man who de­clined to shake my hand or tell me any­thing oth­er than his first name.

Right now, he’s pat­ting Mi­chael Grimm on the back and telling the House Re­pub­lic­an he thinks he’s in­no­cent. “My the­ory is, if they don’t want you around, there’s a reas­on,” Joe says. He’s talk­ing about the 20 charges filed against Grimm in April for tax eva­sion and per­jury, al­leg­a­tions that could even­tu­ally land the law­maker in jail. For now, the con­gress­man is more wor­ried they could put him out of a job if he loses reelec­tion this Novem­ber.

Grimm and his new friend are stand­ing between two rows of clas­sic cars as­sembled for Staten Is­land’s an­nu­al car show, held in the park­ing lot of the loc­al col­lege on a gor­geous Sunday morn­ing. And while most people are pre­oc­cu­pied with open-topped Mus­tangs, a small group gath­ers around Grimm.

“There’s no ques­tion I have a back­bone,” Grimm tells Joe, grin­ning as he walks away to glad-hand with oth­ers. He and I dis­cov­er quickly that Joe isn’t the only one in at­tend­ance who con­siders Grimm less a felon-in-wait­ing than a per­se­cuted do-gooder. Usu­ally, a politi­cian asks voters if they’re do­ing OK; today, it’s the voters who are in­quir­ing about the can­did­ate. One wo­man tells Grimm she’s be­hind him “100 per­cent,” while oth­ers lean in close to whis­per sup­port. (“Thanks, that means a lot,” Grimm re­sponds more than once.) A few simply tell Grimm, a former mar­ine, “Sem­per Fi!”

It turns out a Staten Is­land car show is a great place for an em­battled Re­pub­lic­an to find sup­port. But what’s more im­port­ant for Grimm’s reelec­tion cam­paign is that his sup­port­ers ap­par­ently aren’t con­fined to a few isol­ated pock­ets. The en­tire 11th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, which in­cludes all of Staten Is­land and a slice of Brook­lyn, is giv­ing the con­gress­man great­er-than-ex­pec­ted back­ing. Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives alike say Grimm can still win a third term in of­fice and might even be a fa­vor­ite to do so. And it’s largely be­cause his base (and pos­sibly more than just his base) simply does not care about the charges of ab­use and cor­rup­tion.

In­deed, a NY1 News/Cap­it­al New York/Si­ena Col­lege poll re­leased Tues­day found Grimm lead­ing his Demo­crat­ic chal­lenger, 44 per­cent to 40 per­cent.

That’s fairly re­mark­able, giv­en that a two-year-long in­vest­ig­a­tion thought to be tar­get­ing Grimm’s 2010 cam­paign fin­ances in­stead turned up ac­cus­a­tions that while run­ning a health food res­taur­ant in Man­hat­tan, he had un­der­re­por­ted his taxes by $1 mil­lion, hired il­leg­al im­mig­rants, and com­mit­ted per­jury when in­vest­ig­at­ors asked him about it. He faces tri­al in Decem­ber, which means that if he’s both reelec­ted and found guilty, he might not even fin­ish his term in of­fice be­fore go­ing to jail. 

Grimm says he is in­no­cent and that the ac­cus­a­tions are part of a “polit­ic­al witch hunt.” What the con­gress­man can’t deny, however, is that in Janu­ary he threatened to throw a TV re­port­er from New York off the Cap­it­ol bal­cony and then, lean­ing in close, told the re­port­er, “I will break you in half, like a boy.” The in­cid­ent was caught on tape and made na­tion­al news (and was the sub­ject of a Sat­urday Night Live skit). Grimm later apo­lo­gized.

“Every­one’s al­lowed to be hu­man,” John Pic­ciano tells me. The 55-year-old re­tired fire­fight­er had just shaken hands with Grimm at the car show. He, like a lot of Grimm sup­port­ers I talked with, al­tern­ated between pro­claim­ing Grimm’s in­no­cence and ar­guing that even if he tech­nic­ally wasn’t in­no­cent, the charges were still un­fair.

“I’m sure if you dig deep in­to every­one’s past, you’d find something,” Pic­ciano said.

The fed­er­al in­vest­ig­a­tion and tem­per, in a strange way, seem to en­dear Grimm even more to some of his con­stitu­ents. The con­gress­man’s en­tire cam­paign is built on the premise that he, the lone GOP con­gress­man from New York, is the only one with the mox­ie to fight for Staten Is­land. It’s a tail­or-made mes­sage for the so-called “For­got­ten Bor­ough,” where the is­land’s re­li­gious, cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive elect­or­ate feels for­got­ten and ma­ligned by city of­fi­cials. “Staten Is­land, in par­tic­u­lar, is al­ways push­ing up­hill,” Grimm told Fox Busi­ness host Neil Cavuto in one of the con­gress­man’s few one-on-one tele­vi­sion in­ter­views since the charges were an­nounced. “And if you don’t fight, in my dis­trict, you’re go­ing to get noth­ing.”

It’s how John Colombo sees the in­cum­bent—as an ad­voc­ate for his dis­trict whose only sin was tak­ing on the powers-that-be. “He speaks his mind,” says Colombo, whom I meet later on Sunday at a mo­tor­cycle rally in hon­or of a slain po­lice of­ficer. “And there are people who don’t like that. They feel in­tim­id­ated by him.”

I ask Colombo what he feels when he sees Demo­crats at­tack­ing his con­gress­man over the charges. “You know what I say? ‘That’s my boy Grimm.’ Nobody is per­fect,” he says. “He didn’t murder any­one.”

Colombo says he has good reas­on to back Grimm, whom he cred­its with help­ing him re­cov­er from Hur­ricane Sandy in 2012. The con­gress­man’s ef­forts to help the is­land after the massive storm are a primary selling point of his cur­rent cam­paign, one of the things he tries to talk about when the con­ver­sa­tion isn’t centered on his leg­al limbo.

In­deed, Grimm is al­ways try­ing to take the race’s fo­cus else­where, talk­ing about his op­pon­ent’s vote to raise prop­erty taxes as a city coun­cil­man or the Demo­crat’s friend­li­ness with New York City Ma­jor Bill de Bla­sio, who is dis­liked in Staten Is­land.

In a test­a­ment to just how dif­fer­ent a New York City con­gres­sion­al race can be from oth­ers across the coun­try, Grimm of­ten talks about im­prov­ing trans­port­a­tion on and off the is­land. (It’s lis­ted second un­der the is­sues tab on his web­site, just be­low “Jobs & The Eco­nomy.”)

It’s easy to think the charges against Grimm won’t hurt him in Novem­ber after spend­ing the day watch­ing him talk with sup­port­ers or see­ing the hun­dreds of pro-Grimm yard signs planted in front lawns across the is­land. That would be wrong: Grimm’s race is com­pet­it­ive en­tirely be­cause of the al­leg­a­tions. In a midterm, when the 11th Dis­trict skews more Re­pub­lic­an, in a year when the polit­ic­al cli­mate fa­vors the GOP, Grimm should have had a re­l­at­ively easy reelec­tion.

In­stead, Demo­crats have put him on the de­fens­ive with a bat­tery of ads that fo­cus en­tirely on his al­leged crim­in­al wrong­do­ing. One ad re­leased last week by Demo­crat Domen­ic Rec­chia’s cam­paign fea­tures reg­u­lar voters read­ing the in­di­vidu­al charges, a spot at least one Re­pub­lic­an keep­ing tabs on the race con­sidered an “awe­some” at­tack. Grimm has been aban­doned by the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, his fun­drais­ing has dried up, and he’s likely to be heav­ily out­spent in the ex­pens­ive New York me­dia mar­ket. Demo­crats are con­fid­ent that once voters know about the charges—many of them don’t—they’ll turn against Grimm in droves.

And yet, with few­er than two months be­fore Elec­tion Day, the in­cum­bent Re­pub­lic­an re­mains vi­able. He’s not the first politi­cian to sur­vive such cir­cum­stances (Mari­on Barry comes to mind), but it’s hard to pic­ture a con­gress­man from say, Ce­dar Rap­ids, Iowa, stay­ing in con­ten­tion this long.

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