With Republican Rep. Michael Grimm under federal indictment and abandoned by his national party, Democrats have placed a big bet on capturing the Staten Island-southern Brooklyn congressional seat that has been in GOP hands for 32 of the past 34 years.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is buying ads and financing a ground operation for challenger Domenic Recchia. The National Republican Congressional Committee has provided no funds for Grimm.
Yet the race is highly competitive, with Grimm hammering Recchia as too liberal for New York City's most conservative district. "The DNA of that district will never make it a slam-dunk Democratic district," DCCC chairman Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said.
Democrats have cast Grimm's character as the issue.
"People can't wait until I'm elected, so they can be proud of their congressman, not embarrassed," Recchia said.
But a Siena College poll last month showed Grimm with a 4-point edge, and he has a loyal following.
"He's always had our backs," said Kelly Griswold, 43, of Oakwood Heights, Staten Island, a dental office manager. "I was a resident of New Dorp Beach before my house was wiped out by superstorm Sandy, and Congressman Grimm was there at 7:30 the next morning."
Grimm, 44, a former Marine and FBI agent, is seeking a third term against Recchia, 55, an attorney who represented a Brooklyn City Council district for 12 years. Henry Bardel, 72, a retired city parks supervisor, is the Green Party candidate.
Recchia has big-name support from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The DCCC has reserved $950,000 in airtime and registered 6,000 new voters in the district. It ran an ad called "Moral" that disparages Grimm as "above the law." Campaign finance records show Grimm's only sizable outside spending -- $100,000 for field work -- came from Defending Main Street, a super PAC that boosts moderate Republicans.
Even Staten Island Republicans are divided. Rep. Guy Molinari is behind Grimm, but others have feuded with him. Borough President James Oddo deflected a reporter's question about the race.Grimm points out he didn't have or need national GOP support when first elected in 2010.
"That's why I'm so independent," he said. "I don't have to listen to Speaker Boehner or anyone else, because they didn't help me get elected."
He said of Recchia and the DCCC: "They own him."
At a recent debate, Grimm played to anti-liberal sentiment. Voters should support Recchia, he said, "if you think the ultraliberal policies are doing well, that [President Barack] Obama's doing a great job and de Blasio's going to do a great job for the city and has been."
He also tied Recchia to de Blasio and the Rev. Al Sharpton in a TV ad. Staten Island was the only borough de Blasio lost in last year's general election.
Rich Florentino, 65, of New Dorp, a retired engineer, backs Recchia, but sees a solid Grimm base in southern parts of the borough. "Grimm is way ahead in lawn signs," he said.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said in an interview that Grimm's "street fighter" image endears him to his constituents.
In January, on camera, Grimm threatened to toss a TV reporter off a U.S. Capitol balcony and break him in half. Asked recently about the incident, Grimm said he was in a bad mood after battling for flood insurance reform. "As a Staten Islander, sometimes I get my Italian up," he said.
"The people who like him really like him. He's one of them," King said. But Grimm's still "got a tough race," he said, because "Democrats are piling in a load of money against Michael, and Republicans are not putting money in for him."
Grimm pleaded not guilty in April to hiring workers without legal immigration status for a Manhattan restaurant he once owned, evading taxes on $1 million in receipts and lying in a civil suit. He said he'll have his day in court in December.
Some supporters shrug off the indictment. "You tell me one business -- garment, food, any industry -- that doesn't hire undocumented workers, they're lying," said Nanci Roden, 58, a real estate appraiser from Gravesend, Brooklyn.
Israel predicted the issue -- the relentless theme of the ad campaign for Recchia -- will sway voters because, "Mike Grimm saying, 'You have to pay your taxes, but I don't,' that is what really angers people."
The message resonates with Carl Chew, 64, of West Brighton, Staten Island, a retired electrician who called Grimm a "crook." Still, Chew wanted Recchia to say more about what he would do in Congress.
Grimm himself has argued "99 percent" of Recchia's campaign has been, "Michael Grimm is bad, so vote for me."
Asked to respond, Recchia said that as a councilman, he balanced the city budget, saved firefighter and teacher jobs and paid down debt. He quickly went back on the attack.
"I'll put my record up against his record, because his record is a 20-count federal indictment, mistreating workers, wire fraud, mail fraud," he said.