Former Lawmaker Seeks a Comeback After Prison, With Bannon’s Help

Updated on
  • Grimm pleaded guilty to tax evasion, spent 7 months in prison
  • Bannon is supporting challenges against incumbent Republicans

Former U.S. Representative Michael Grimm of New York, who spent seven months in federal prison for felony tax evasion, wants his old job back. 

He’s betting Republicans in Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn will forgive his criminal past. He’s enlisted Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, to help him convince voters that Dan Donovan, the district’s scandal-free incumbent, is a GOP traitor for voting against the House bill that would have repealed Obamacare.

Michael Grimm

Photographer: Michael Graae/Getty Images

“This race, like many other races around the country, will be a referendum on those members of Congress who have not supported our president,” Grimm said in an interview. “Republican voters, they’re very frustrated with Republicans who have not had his back and not forwarded his agenda.”

Encouraged by last month’s Alabama Senate primary victory by Bannon-backed Roy Moore, Grimm basked in Bannon’s support after the two met last week in Washington. Grimm’s campaign for the June 2018 primary is one of a number of challenges the Breitbart News executive chairman plans to sponsor against incumbent Republican House and Senate members. Bannon is seeking candidates who will vote to dump Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and back changes to Senate voting procedures that have blocked Trump’s agenda.

“It’s time for anti-Trump Republicans to pay a price for opposing the president,” said Michael Caputo, a Buffalo-based Bannon ally and former Trump campaign communications adviser, who helped set up Grimm’s meeting with Bannon. “We saw this as a natural alliance."

Long Shot

Some Republicans say Grimm is not to be underestimated in his long-shot bid to regain the congressional seat from which he resigned in 2015 after pleading guilty to one count of felony tax fraud. He was released from prison in May 2016.

Grimm, 47, a Marine veteran of the first Iraq war who later worked as an undercover FBI agent, drew national attention in 2014 when he threatened to throw a New York reporter off a balcony inside the Capitol for asking him about a federal investigation into his campaign. He was captured on camera saying “I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.” 

Later, he released a statement that accused the reporter of taking a "cheap shot" and added, "I doubt that I am the first member of Congress to tell off a reporter."

District Attorney

Donovan, 60, previously served for 12 years as Staten Island district attorney, an elected office. During a Wednesday interview on MSNBC, Donovan said he has a strong record of supporting Trump.

"I think if Mr. Bannon will examine our race and look at my record, I’ve supported the president 90 percent of the time with my votes,” Donovan said.

He added: “The people of Staten Island and Brooklyn have a clear choice. They have a choice of a person who was a prosecutor and put people in prison for 20 years and a choice between that and a person who went to prison.”

Grimm is known for his dapper wardrobe of crisp business suits and button-down shirts, and a tireless campaign style he displayed during Superstorm Sandy’s catastrophic flooding in 2012. Residents across Staten Island encountered him as he assessed damage, helped clear debris and pledged aid.

“I know my constituents very well; I know them personally,” Grimm says. “They want me back because they know from experience no one will give them their heart and soul like I will.”

Republican Stronghold

That kind of gesture resonates in this most suburban and sparsely populated of New York’s five boroughs, where Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential race, 101,437 to 74,143 -- in a city that Clinton won by 78 percent to Trump’s 18 percent. 

Grimm’s candidacy poses the question of whether in New York City’s most Republican stronghold, the president remains so popular with GOP voters that they would cast out a longtime Republican vote-gatherer in response to Grimm’s depiction of Donovan as disloyal to Trump and to traditional party values.

His biggest hurdle is explaining how he ran for re-election in 2014 while under federal indictment and won while protesting his innocence, only to turn around and admit guilt, using his congressional seat as a plea-bargaining chip to reduce his prison sentence, said Susan Del Percio, a Republican consultant not involved in the race. In his Dec. 23, 2014, guilty plea Grimm acknowledged committing perjury, hiring undocumented immigrants and committing wire fraud. He announced his resignation a week later.

“Dan Donovan, a former Staten Island district attorney, has a record of putting people in jail, while Michael Grimm has a record of going to prison,” Del Percio said. “It’s not just a matter of trying to depict Donovan as anti-Trump; you have to build an organization. Is the money going to be there for him? Is he going to be able to persuade people that Donovan is as bad as he says?”

Payroll Taxes

Grimm says Staten Island voters will accept his view that the Obama Justice Department was out to get him and won a prison sentence against him for an offense for which most defendants pay fines -- evading payroll taxes on workers at a Manhattan restaurant he owned. 

“I would be the first to tell you it was wrong having delivery boys off the books, but it was a civil, not a criminal wrong,” he said.

Bannon didn’t respond to emailed questions about his support for Grimm.

Grimm’s past campaigns have showcased his ability to sell himself on the stump. In 2010, during his first campaign, he beat an incumbent Democrat during an off-year election in which Staten Island followed much of the U.S. in electing a Republican House majority.

“He presents a serious threat to Donovan because he knows how to hit on all of the cultural issues,” said Richard Flanagan, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island. “I have to believe that Bannon took note of his campaign skills, took a look at who votes in the Republican primary, the fact that it’s usually a safe Republican district, and he placed a bet on the Trump effect, the frustration of all of these voters who feel loyal to the president and resent all the attacks. For them, it’s personal.”

Obama’s Nominee

It’s personal for Grimm, as well, Flanagan said, because Donovan urged the Senate to confirm Loretta Lynch as Barack Obama’s attorney general nominee in 2015 -- after she had been the prosecutor who sent Grimm to prison.

No matter how popular Trump is with Staten Island Republicans, Grimm would have to beat the GOP county organization. Among those backing Donovan are Ron Castorina, a state assemblyman and the county GOP chairman, and New York City Councilman Joseph Borelli. The New York Conservative Party has endorsed Donovan, said Chairman Michael Long. 

“In Dan Donovan we have a man who is scandal-free with a long record of public service who’s generally popular,” Long said. “It’s no comparison with Alabama at all.”

One of the ironies in the race, Long said, is Grimm’s comparatively liberal voting record in Congress, particularly after he ran for the office in 2010 as a Tea Party Republican. In 2012, he aligned himself with Democrats and liberal Republicans to push for billions of dollars in federal aid for Hurricane Sandy victims. He also bucked the party’s leadership on immigration issues and in sponsoring a bill that made it easier to obtain flood insurance.

Grimm’s mentor, Guy Molinari, 88, a fixture in Staten Island politics for more than 40 years as a state assemblyman, borough president and U.S. representative, vowed he would never vote for Trump and denounced him as “outrageous” months before he won the presidential nomination last year, only to switch gears and support him two months before the election.

The foundation of Grimm’s attack on Donovan stems from his vote against the House GOP health-care bill in May. Donovan based his opposition on an amendment that burdened New York City with $63 billion in Medicaid costs while exempting the rest of the state. Grimm said if he had been in Congress, his colleagues would never have done that to him.

“The Republicans put in that amendment that hurt Donovan’s district as a gesture of disrespect,” Grimm said. “It showed Donovan is perceived as weak.”  

— With assistance by Jennifer Jacobs

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