Can Michael Grimm overcome a felony conviction and win back his congressional seat?

Despite a felony conviction, Michael Grimm may win a Republican congressional primary on Staten Island -- putting him one step closer to retaking his former seat.
Despite a felony conviction, Michael Grimm may win a Republican congressional primary on Staten Island — putting him one step closer to retaking his former seat. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

Plenty of Staten Islanders were enjoying the sun along the walking and bike path at Midland Beach on Wednesday. Because their district is in the middle of New York City’s hottest congressional race, with a primary to be held later this month, many were well-prepared to offer their thoughts on the tax fraud conviction of Republican challenger and former congressman Michael Grimm:

“He made a mistake.”

“God is forgiving.”

“Everyone deserves a second chance.”

“He did what he did.”

And: “He’s gonna get things done. He’s pushy.”

Responses such as these help explain why Grimm, who once threatened to throw a NY1 reporter off a balcony and is now trying to regain his old seat, has a real shot at returning to Washington, despite the primary against incumbent Rep. Dan Donovan, a no-nonsense former Staten Island DA.

Donovan has the backing of Staten Island favorites like former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and, via Twitter, President Donald Trump. Yet polling of likely voters by NY1 and Siena College conducted half before and half after the Trump endorsement found Grimm up 10 points on Donovan, with many voters saying they probably wouldn’t change their minds.

Part of why Grimm has a real chance is his charisma and deep roots on Staten Island (the district dips a toe into moderate neighborhoods in Brooklyn, too, but most of those areas feel more like Richmond County than Bushwick). Grimm’s talent for showing up and winning over constituents may have been best on display after Superstorm Sandy, which devastated neighborhoods to the point that some people are still not back in their homes more than five years later. Many of Grimm’s former constituents feel he was an able advocate during and after their plight, whether he was appearing at St. Margaret Mary Church in work clothes and boots in the weeks after the storm, or fighting for a displaced animal shelter or quicker home reconstruction. Those memories run deep along the waterline, whose bike and walking path is now protected by dunes.

But another benefit for Grimm is that he seems to be channeling pro-Trump elements of the district. Trump may have endorsed Donovan, who strategists see as having a better chance at beating a Democrat in November, and Donovan has recently tried to signal his closeness with the president via Air Force One references and tweets about illegal immigrants. Yet Donovan took moderate stances against Trump’s tax bill and anti-sanctuary cities legislation, among other un-Trumpy behavior. This was a point of agitation for multiple Grimm supporters on the bike path Wednesday.

Some Grimm boosters also identify with him for cultural reasons. That includes the neon-shirted biker who explained his preference by pointing to a passerby’s Marine Corps cap. “That’s all you need to know,” he said: Grimm is a former Marine and FBI agent, which trumps mere district attorneys for some. The biker rode away shouting about Grimm being selectively prosecuted for his tax evasion and underreporting of salaries in the Manhattan health restaurant he co-owned, which partially led to his guilty plea to a felony charge in 2014.

The punditry’s fixation on Grimm’s criminal record and the whole toss-a-reporter-over-the-balcony thing just doesn’t play the same way on the other side of the Verrazano. To some in this part of the district, it’s a lot of pearl-clutching while ignoring the important things. A long and cordial conversation with Joe Lennon, 83, out for his regular walk along the water, sheds a little light on the subject. Lennon says he’s firmly “on the fence” between Donovan and Grimm and likes both candidates, but the felony conviction isn’t really a factor for him, and regarding the balcony: “We all lose our tempers.” When Grimm was congressman in the district, Lennon says, “he fit in.”

Lennon is no hothead impulse-voter. He said he has been and plans to continue considering his options. He is the kind of guy who carries a small radio on his regular walks to listen to the news, and who keeps a notecard with the numbers for his usual stations in his breast pocket. A veteran of the Korean War, he quotes Truman and Churchill equally reverently and says he has admired some Democrats, but he also likes how Trump speaks his mind and gives it to those football players who aren’t standing for the flag. “Let them go to China and pull that,” Lennon says.

That’s the kind of subject that energizes Lennon. He’s annoyed that Democrats, the party that brought great accomplishments like Social Security and bank regulations, seem to have morphed into a party of political correctness.

If voters like Lennon are interested in Grimm, and there are lots of them and their lawn signs on Staten Island, then the former congressman may indeed be putting together a wider coalition than just old partisans and those who are anti-establishment for the sake of it. In fact, that wider coalition would be a lot like the one Trump harnessed so successfully.