Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008

The GOP Faces Losing Its Lone Big Apple Stronghold

Even before George Bush's approval ratings sank to historic depths and Wall Street nearly imploded, Republicans were on inhospitable footing in reliably Democratic New York City. For nearly 30 years, though, the GOP has maintained a lone stronghold in the Big Apple: the 13th Congressional district, which encompasses the more conservative borough of Staten Island and a swath of blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst.

But now Republicans are likely to even lose that, and it has little to do with Bush or the bailout. Instead, it has everything to do with the extracurricular activities of Rep. Vito Fossella, who has steered the district since 1998. Last May Fossella, whose 13-point re-election margin in 2006 was his slimmest since ascending to his post, was pulled over in Alexandria, Va. for drunk driving.

Officers said his blood-alcohol content registered more than twice the legal limit. Fossella compounded his troubles by making conflicting statements about where he was going, and raised suspicion by enlisting a female friend to pick him up from jail. Amid media scrutiny, Fossella admitted during a press conference that he had conducted an affair with the woman, during which he fathered her child out of wedlock.

Soon after Fossella announced that he would not stand for re-election this fall, and Republicans hoped the double-barreled scandal would mark the nadir of their fight to keep the district. But amazingly the GOP bandwagon careened further off course. The party's top pick to replace Fossella, former Wall Street executive Frank Powers, died of a heart attack in June.

His last minute, emergency replacement, Robert Straniere—who represented Staten Island for 24 years in the State Assembly, including a 10-year stint as floor leader—has been plagued by a fractious relationship with his own party. Local Republicans have been reticent to throw their support behind Straniere, who former Staten Island borough president Guy Molinari said “wasn't a team player” and “can't possibly win.”

Democratic candidate Michael McMahon, 51, a lawyer and city councilman for the last eight years, boasts not only the endorsement of Mayor Michael Bloomberg (a Republican turned independent) and local Republican bigwigs like current Staten Island borough president James Molinaro, but also deeper pockets.

According to the latest Federal Election Commission filings in August, he has taken in $1,043,460, with more than $482,000 left in his coffers, while Straniere has managed to raise about $86,000, with a shade under $2,000 on hand.

Thanks to that funding advantage and a national Democratic wave, experts expect McMahon to coast to victory. The website Real Clear Politics considers Fossella's seat the most likely to change hands among all House races nationwide. “Odds are 90% to 95% that the Democrats will pick up the seat,” says Justin Phillips, an assistant professor specializing in urban politics at New York's Columbia University. He notes that while Republicans are having broad difficulty coaxing candidates to run in this frigid electoral climate, finding a suitable option is particularly tough when the smell of an incumbent's scandal is still fresh. But Phillips says Straniere, 67, has his own shortcomings, including the fact that locals view him as an outsider—he was ousted from the State Assembly during a 2004 primary in part because he maintained a home in Manhattan.

Whoever captures the district will inherit the 650,000 constituents that McMahon describes as “the true middle-class backbone of the city: the cops, the firemen, the teachers.” For his part, Straniere believes the district's demographics skew in his favor. He counts on support from veterans, a sizeable elderly population, and Italian-American voters.

“For 28 years this has been an Italian-American Congressional seat,” he says. “I think that's reflective in no insignificant way in ethnic voting, which we know is real.” Moreover, he expects to get a boost from alignment with John McCain in a district that he predicts will be the Arizona Senator's “best in the Northeast. His coattails are going to be very helpful for me.”

With polls signaling that Barack Obama has lapped McCain in the sprint to election day, that hasn't exactly comforted Republicans. Some of them are so incensed by Straniere's candidacy that they sought last month to have him replaced by Fossella, even going so far as to offer him an open judgeship in Manhattan, which would have enabled Republicans to replace him on the ballot. Despite those overtures, Fossella declined to jump back in the race. He was convicted on Oct. 17 on drunk driving charges and pending a December hearing could face a mandatory 5-day jail term.

Both candidates reject suggestions that Fossella's fall will leave a lingering imprint on the race, where the region's and nation's economic carnage will take center stage. The candidates also cite transportation infrastructure as a major issue; Staten Islanders suffer some of the longest commutes nationwide.

But observers say this isn't a race that will come down to the fine points of policy. “There are issues of candidate strength and identity. Those are going to be really key in tilting the race heavily toward the Democrat,” Phillips says. “The Republicans know that they're not going to retain the seat.”

(See Pictures of the Week here.)

(See the Top Races to Watch '08.)