“Mikey Suits,” the FBI agent-turned-New York City congressman, is working hard to defend the industry he once made his name busting.
“When we demonize Wall Street, it’s the people on Main Street who don’t have a job,” U.S. Representative Michael Grimm said as he walked the Jersey City trading floor of ICAP Plc, the world’s largest interdealer broker.
In any other Congress, Grimm’s support for businesses that employ many of his constituents wouldn’t attract attention.
Not this year. Like many new Republicans in Congress, Grimm was propelled into office by Tea Party activists determined to slash government spending and stop economic bailout efforts like the Troubled Asset Relief Program that aided Wall Street. Now, the lawmaker whose fondness for pinstripes earned him his nickname is doing what it takes to get re-elected in a Staten Island district dependent on financial-service and government jobs -- and angering some supporters in the process.
His approach helps explain why the 87 new House Republican freshmen haven’t hardened into the block of anti-government lawmakers that Tea Party activists thought they elected.
Grimm and other Republicans who represent swing districts have discovered that the agenda of the fiscally conservative activists who helped elect them can conflict with the interests of constituents.
“My district is center-right and I think that’s what I’m representing,” said Grimm, 41, who won his seat in November against one-term Democrat Michael McMahon with 51 percent of the vote. “I would say I’m being fiscally responsible but being fair and reasonable by doing so.”
In Grimm’s case, that has meant lobbying for a new light rail system in his district, even as Republican governors such as Rick Scott in Florida and Chris Christie of New Jersey reject federal transit funding as wasteful spending.
While Republicans fight for steeper cuts in federal spending, he’s opposing funding reductions for police, transit, and low-income heating assistance programs the House approved as part of an overall bill that would trim 2011 spending by $61 billion.
As House Republican leaders negotiate with Democrats who control the Senate on whether to settle for $33 billion in cuts, Grimm has slammed Tea Party activists who prefer a government shutdown to backing off the $61 billion-reduction figure. On March 14, he termed such activists the “extreme wing of the Republican Party.”
That comment didn’t sit well with some of his earliest supporters.
“His use of the word ‘extreme’ was insulting especially so to Tea Partiers, who have been eating, sleeping and breathing drastic -- even draconian -- spending cuts since” the TARP financial-rescue package was enacted in late 2008, wrote Frank Santarpia, an organizer of the Staten Island Tea Party, in a letter posted on the group’s website.
During his primary campaign, Grimm cultivated the backing of Tea Party groups and touted an endorsement from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Such support helped him defeat a candidate backed by Staten Island Republican leaders for the party’s nomination.
As November’s election neared, though, Grimm declined to call himself a “Tea Party candidate” in an interview with the Daily Caller website.
Now, Grimm says he supports the basic Tea Party principles of fiscal responsibility while opposing those embracing a shutdown.
“By listening to these groups we would be shortchanging America,” he said.
Tea Party activists are likely to turn on lawmakers such as Grimm, said Brian Darling, the director of government studies at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group that promotes fiscally conservative policies.
“When you’ve got Tea Party-supported politicians sticking their thumb in the eye of the Tea Party, there will be a price to pay,” Darling said. “They are going to go after politicians who reject them maybe even harder then they go after liberal Democrats.”
Still, to challenge members like Grimm, Tea Party activists must find a way to keep their diffuse, leaderless movement unified for another election cycle.
Santarpia said not all members of his group share his disappointment with Grimm. “Grimm’s middle-of-the-road approach satisfies the pragmatists but, to a certain extent, disappoints the hawks,” he said in an interview.
Analysts say it isn’t surprising that Tea Party ideals are taking a back seat to the temperament of Grimm’s district.
‘Comfortable With Government’
“The mood of the island is pretty comfortable with government,” said Richard Flanagan, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island. “For Grimm, the play is to bring home the bacon.”
Almost 13 percent of Staten Islanders work in real estate, insurance, and finance, according to Jim Brown, a labor market analyst at the New York State Department of Labor. Another 22 percent of the borough’s residents are government workers, above the almost 15 percent national average.
Grimm worked for the government for most of his career. He joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a clerk while attending college, after having served in the U.S. Marines during the 1991 Gulf War.
He eventually became an agent, and worked undercover in “Operation Wooden Nickel,” in which dozens of Wall Street traders, brokers, and executives were implicated in a corrupt foreign trading operation. The probe’s targets included JPMorgan Chase & Co. and UBS AG.
“The idea that there’s no role for government is ludicrous,” Grimm said. His goal, he said, is “putting government back to its original position, which is limited but should be effective and efficient.”
Three weeks after taking office in January, he met with congressional and local officials to build support for a new rail line connecting Staten Island and New Jersey.
On Feb. 9, Grimm voted against a Republican-sponsored bill to cut $179 million from security funding for the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
Five days later, Grimm joined Representative Peter King, a Republican from Long Island, in writing House Speaker John Boehner to express “grave concern” that the chamber’s budget bill would “impose a disproportionate impact” on the New York region by slashing more than $750 million in funding for Amtrak and heating assistance for low-income families, among other programs.
Grimm ultimately voted for the House’s budget bill, after supporting two Democratic amendments to restore funding for police and fire programs.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quickly authorized a series of automated telephone calls to voters that criticized him for backing a bill with the cuts to police funding.
“Representative Michael Grimm has been trying to dance around the truth of his extremist agenda and Tea Party roots,” said Josh Schwerin, northeast regional press secretary for the DCCC.
Grimm has made clear he will try to dodge that line of attack. “I don’t want to give the Democrats the option to stand up and say, ‘Look how unreasonable’” Republicans are, he said.
Grimm is emerging as an advocate for financial services firms. He’s using his seat on the House Financial Services committee to push for a re-examination of the financial regulatory overhaul former Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, and Representative Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, pushed through Congress last year. Critics say the measure is burdensome.
“We’re going through Dodd-Frank literally line by line,” he told ICAP Plc Americas Chief Executive Officer Doug Rhoten during his visit to the Jersey City office. “We don’t want to be a burden on a sector that quite frankly is extremely important.”
The new rules are required to be in place by July 2011. ICAP and other firms are lobbying Congress to give the market more time to adjust.
“It’s a very aggressive time frame,” said Chris Ferreri, a managing director at ICAP and Staten Island resident, who invited Grimm to the company. “Phasing in such comprehensive changes to the market place would be a more practical solution.”
Between the shouts of brokers cursing out each other and the market, Grimm during his office visit promised ICAP executives that they’d have an open line to his office.
“We’re here to make the relationship,” he said. “We want to know how this is going to affect you.”