8:38 am Feb. 20, 20124
It's not news that Staten Island is a long way from Times-venerating Manhattan, culturally. But the two big standing ovations at the opening of the Staten Island Republican Party's new headquarters on Saturday afternoon were like something out of an alternate universe.
One ovation was for the arrival of Representative Michael Grimm, the subject of two recent New York Times articles accusing him of soliciting illegal contributions and of engaging in unsavory business practices, which the congressman duly deflected with a humorous speech about how his dog, Sebastian bit the mailman. The dog, see, thought the mailman was delivering the Times.
The second big ovation was for the final speaker, 83-year-old former congressman Guy Molinari, who rose from a folding chair at the front of the room, and leaning on his cane, took to the podium to put an exclamation on the party's support for its troubled first-term House member.
"I was going to take a copy of the New York Times and ignite it, but Sebastian beat me to it; he shit all over the paper," Molinari said, to big cheers, before offering a five-minute defense of Grimm and sending the crowd off with a parting shot. "Friends, don't ever give up your principles, and don't let these shit-ass newspapers tell you what to do."
This morning, the Times followed up by calling for investigations into Grimm's fund-raising by the Office of Congressional Ethics and the federal justice department, citing the congressman's "insistence on his complete innocence, while declining to answer detailed questions."
The only declared Democratic challenger to Grimm is Mark Murphy, the son of a former congressman who has worked in Hollywood and was until recently an aide to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. But there have been reports since the Times stories that some better-established Democrats including former congressman Mike McMahon (who was unseated by Grimm in 2010) and Assembly Mike Cusick are considering getting in.
At the Republican event this weekend, 100 people packed into a long room with cream-colored walls and a low ceiling to consecrate the new headquarters. They began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer from the party chairman, Robert Scamardella, who joked in his opening remarks about the local party's perpetual infighting, which wasn't such a laughing matter two years ago.
In 2010, facing a winnable race against a first-term incumbent, the party's executive committee nominated former congressman Vito Fossella—who was not even a declared candidate and had retired two years earlier after a D.U.I. arrest revealed that he maintained a second family in Washington—over Grimm and another primary challenger, Michael Allegretti.
At the time Molinari, who was an ardent backer of Grimm, promised a "nasty campaign," but it never came to fruition, after Fossella stood down and Grimm won the primary with 69 percent of the vote.
In a phone interview last week, Molinari dismissed, in typically outspoken fashion, the possibility that Grimm's recent troubles might stoke a new round of party infighting and invite a primary challenge.
"Absolutely not," Molinari said. "We believe in executions here, so that won't happen."
Perhaps with that in mind, all the local Republican office-holders had shown up for the opening, with the exception of retiring assemblyman Lou Tobacco, who announced last week that he won't seek re-election.
Notwithstanding all the requisite homilies to Republicanism in general, the event was meant as a show of support for Grimm, who was repeatedly referred to, respectfully, as the "titular head" of the local party.
State Senator Andrew Lanza referred to the congressman as "beloved," and cautioned the crowd not to believe the allegations they might read in the papers or on blogs "because they usually come from cowards."
Assembywoman Nicole Malliatokis said it was important to have Grimm fighting the "socialist ideals that some of his members were trying to bring to this nation."
Councilman James Oddo reminded the crowd that he hadn't endorsed in the primary in 2010, but he recounted a conversation with Grimm at his parents' house during the general election, when Oddo said his endorsement carried the sacred credibility of his father's name, and Grimm said it was about his own father's name too.
"I believed him then and I believe him now," Oddo said.
Councilman Vincent Ignizio, who drew laughs when he declined to take a phone call from his wife, warned of the "boomerang effect" of "throwing stones."
"When these are unbelievably proven to be unsubstantiated, Staten Island is going to stand up like they never have for you, Mike, and they're going to reject what just occurred," he said.
After the speeches, in between hugs with supporters and posing for photographs, Grimm told a handful of reporters that the stories had actually helped coalesce support behind him.
"I think in the last two weeks I've gotten more emails, from people I've never met before, on Staten Island, since the time I started my campaign," he said. "Never before have I had such an outpouring of support. So, as sad as it is, or as ridiculous as it may sound, the Times may be helping me. Because I'm getting support that I never thought I would have.
"Even some of those who were a little upset with some of my positions—that I didn't, say, support Ron Paul or whatever—are now saying, 'Hey we may have had our differences, but we're solidly behind you.' So I'm very, very humbled by the uneblieveale support that you see here today and this is a tiny sampling of the emails, letters, calls and phone calls I've been getting."
But Grimm has also been making phone calls of his own, to reassure some of his important supporters, including state Conservative Party chairman Mike Long.
"Nothing that has been written would encourage me to look in a different direction at this stage in the game," Long, told me last week, after speaking to Grimm.
"There's nothing wrong with trying to dial phones and ask people to give you donations," Long said. "I think there's a lot of accusations that just don't pass the test, OK? So my hope is he hasn't crossed the line. I spoke to him and he said he didn't break any rules or regulations and I hope that's true."
(Because the district spans two counties, the state party, chaired by Long, nominates the candidate, not the local committee, which is chaired by Borough President James Molinaro, who endorsed the Democratic candidate in 2010.)
So far, the support for Grimm, who also has $1 million in cash on hand, appears to be keeping his potential Republican challengers at bay.
Fossella has yet to make any noises about a challenge, and Allegretti, Grimm's primary opponent last time, told Capital: "Right now, I remain hopeful that these allegations can be properly answered, and that the congressman can get back to work for the citizens of our district."
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