Threat, FBI Probe Color Grimm's Re-election Battle

Threat, FBI Probe Color Grimm's Re-election Battle
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Bill Maher announced on his HBO show last week that Republican Rep. Michael Grimm (NY-11) is a contender in his “flip a district” campaign to identify and defeat a vulnerable member of Congress that the comedian has deemed unfit for the job. 

It didn’t take Grimm’s campaign long to seize the clear political opportunity inherent in a left-leaning Hollywood celebrity’s effort to meddle in New York City’s only Republican-leaning congressional district, which encompasses all of Staten Island and parts of south Brooklyn. 

On Sunday, the candidate blasted out a fundraising email ripping Maher’s “anti-Catholic, leftist propaganda” and adding, “Help me stop the Liberals from Coming.” 

Coverage of the episode highlighted the continued national interest that the 11th District race has generated, as Democrats and Republicans alike have labeled it one of the marquee House midterm contests. No one doubts that the election will be tight, but it is Grimm himself, more than any other factor, who has made it one of the most fascinating 2014 showdowns.  

It’s not every year that a lone member of Congress steals the headlines at the president’s State of the Union address. But after Grimm took exception to a post-speech question from NY1 reporter Michael Scotto and threatened to break him in half “like a boy,” the lawmaker’s display of temper became the biggest sidebar to stories coming out of that speech.  

Just as Grimm’s tirade only drew further attention to the very topic he wanted to avoid that night -- an ongoing federal investigation into his campaign finances -- Sunday’s fundraising email threatens to do the same thing. It was the episode with Scotto, after all, that Maher cited in nominating Grimm as a potential target, joking of the infamous incident that the former FBI agent,  U.S. Marine and colorful threat-maker “seems to be all of Staten Island distilled into one man.” 

Grimm “has really been working hard to try to move beyond the Scotto incident, but when something like this crops up, it really does put it back in people’s minds,” said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of campaign management and political communication at New York University. “It’s always been a hard race for Democrats. … That said, Grimm is like something out of a movie. It’s worse than ‘House of Cards,’ for God’s sakes.” 

But questions about the second-term congressman’s ability to control his anger do not top Grimm’s list of concerns when it comes to holding onto his seat. The FBI has for two years been looking into allegations that his 2010 campaign received hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign donations.  

The investigation led to the January arrest of a woman described as Grimm’s former girlfriend, Diana Durand, who stands accused of using straw donors to exceed the FEC’s individual contribution limit for Grimm’s campaign. And over the summer, another former fundraiser, Israeli citizen Ofer Biton, pled guilty to visa fraud as part of the probe.

The House Ethics Committee had been conducting its own investigation, which it put on hold last year at the Justice Department’s request, as the FBI probe continues. 

Grimm has denied any wrongdoing.   

His likely Democratic opponent is former New York City Council member Domenic Recchia, who is expected to cruise to victory in the June primary. Recchia has thus far been somewhat guarded in attacking Grimm directly on the ethical and temperamental issues, preferring instead to let his surrogates bring down the hammer. 

“Voters are sick and tired of Michael Grimm’s reckless antics, his looming FBI investigation, and his entire scandal-plagued tenure and now they are eager to vote him out of office,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Marc Brumer said in a statement, adding that Grimm’s time in office has been “a train wreck.”

In a district where recent demographic changes have somewhat mitigated Republicans’ built-in advantage, Democrats have also zeroed in on Grimm for sticking close to the party line on some gun control measures and for not pushing harder on immigration reform.  

For its part, the Republican’s campaign has touted a Grimm-sponsored flood insurance relief bill, which President Obama signed into law earlier this month, as a legislative feather in his cap.  

Democrats counter that the post-Sandy recovery measure was watered down, but there is no doubt that the new law is a political winner for Grimm in a district where the effects of the 2012 superstorm are still being felt strongly. 

Republicans are also targeting Recchia’s City Council record, including an unpopular vote he cast to raise property taxes. And they are seeking to tie him to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is particularly unpopular on Staten Island -- the only borough that the newly elected Democrat lost in his landslide victory last November.  

“Democrats couldn’t have picked a worse candidate to run in New York’s 11th District then Domenic Recchia, a Bill de Blasio stooge who hails from Brooklyn and voted for a record hike in property taxes while not paying his own, supported a congestion pricing plan that would devastate Staten Island families, and refuses to budge from his steadfast support of Obamacare,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Ian Prior said in a statement. 

Republicans have sought to make hay of Recchia’s Brooklyn residency, since more than two-thirds of the district’s voters live in Staten Island. It’s a geographic challenge in the still somewhat tribal city of New York, a disadvantage the Democrat tried to mitigate earlier this month when he officially launched his campaign at his mother’s Staten Island home.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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