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.