In NYC, a Republican ex-con fights to return to Congress
Michael Grimm doesn't want to talk about his time in prison. He just wants your vote.
The former Republican congressman from New York City's Staten Island is fighting his party, his president and the stigma of a felony conviction in a no-holds-barred primary June 26.
Just two years out of prison, the amateur boxer with a fiery temper wants his old job back. And he has a legitimate chance to seize the nomination from the incumbent, Dan Donovan.
Just don't ask Grimm about his time behind bars for tax fraud.
"I'm done talking about it," Grimm said in a recent Associated Press interview, blaming his seven-month stay in a federal prison on a politically motivated Justice Department under the Obama administration. "It's a closed chapter in my life. I'm looking to the future."
President Donald Trump spotlighted the race this past week with a Twitter endorsement of Donovan, warning that a Grimm primary victory would risk losing the GOP's only U.S. House seat in the city.
"Remember Alabama," Trump wrote, likening Grimm to Republican Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate who was nominated even despite being accused of molesting teenage girls and who lost the general election to a Democrat in the GOP stronghold.
Trump's decision to step into New York's turbulent GOP primary tests the strength of his influence in his hometown's only conservative pocket. The 11th Congressional District covers the quiet streets of Staten Island as well as a slice of southern Brooklyn.
It is truly the heart of New York's Trump country, and is home to many white working-class voters — police officers, firefighters and hairdressers — who have sent a Republican to Washington for most of the past decade.
Donovan, a 61-year-old former public prosecutor, isn't shy about highlighting Grimm's criminal history.
"Once you betray the community you don't get a second chance," Donovan told the AP as he toured the district this past week. "This race comes down to integrity: Who can the public trust?"
Grimm, 48, is a former Marine and FBI agent who represented the area from 2011 to 2015.
He survived a political firestorm in 2014 after his violent threat against a reporter on Capitol Hill was caught on video. A year later, Grimm was forced to resign after pleading guilty to felony tax fraud involving a restaurant he partially owned before going to Congress.
In an interview, Grimm suggested that Donovan dangled the possibility of a presidential pardon should he abandon his primary challenge. A Donovan spokeswoman denied the claim.
A spokeswoman for Trump, who pardoned one conservative supporter this past week and is contemplating other pardons, did not respond to questions about a possible pardon for Grimm, who insists his harsh sentence was politically motivated.
Does Grimm want a pardon?
"Of course! I don't know of anyone who wouldn't, especially in my circumstances," Grimm told the AP.
While Grimm's criminal history is a central issue in the race, so is Trump.
As in other Republican primary contests this year, the New York candidates have sparred over the strength of their loyalty to the Republican president.
Donovan, who has been active in New York City politics for decades, notes that Trump has endorsed him six times over his political career. Yet Donovan has had to explain voting against Trump's tax overhaul and plan to replace President Barack Obama's health care law.
"I vote with Trump 90 percent of the time," Donovan said. "I vote with my constituents 100 percent of the time."
Grimm's campaign released a new TV ad on Friday that says: "Every time it mattered, Dan Donovan voted against President Trump."
"Look, if they want a guy like Dan Donovan, who's about as exciting as a wet noodle, to represent them, they already have that," Grimm said in the interview. "I'm a Marine. Guys like me don't charge into combat because we don't have an aggressive personality."
He added: "I'm a fighter in every way."
On Staten Island, voters have strong opinions about Grimm's personality and his baggage.
Outside Tony's Brick Oven pizzeria on Bay Street, 61-year-old Victor Aasen said he's definitely voting for Donovan.
"The other guy is just full of drama," Aasen said, citing Grimm's threat against the reporter in Washington. "He's a hot head."
Later, Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, railed against Grimm's background after endorsing Donovan.
"I think it's a disgrace for someone who's a convicted felon to run for office," Quirk said. "He should be ashamed of himself."
Yet evidence of Grimm's appeal across the district is easy to find.
His red, white and blue campaign signs are plastered along businesses and homes up and down Staten Island's main streets. Constituents talk openly about his dedication to the district after Superstorm Sandy, which caused damage that's still being repaired in some cases.
Grimm is an aggressive campaigner who insists he can win simply by outworking his opponent.
At Andrew's Diner, he hugged a boy in a wheelchair and promised to write a letter of recommendation for another who hoped to go to West Point.
"I really feel that he was railroaded," 81-year-old Bob Demarest said of Grimm as he waited for his pancakes. "I want him back."
It's unlikely that the president will visit the district on Donovan's behalf. With far more consequential races across the country this fall, Trump is expected to focus his time and energy attacking vulnerable Democratic Senate candidates in Republican-leaning states.
Grimm, who says he maintains connections in the White House, recommends that Trump stay out of Staten Island.
"If I was legitimately advising the president, which I'm not, but if I was, I would say, 'Stay out of a race like this because I don't see how it would benefit him to get into such a contentious race,'" Grimm said. "By going into the race, he puts himself in a situation where he's going to lose."