The Borough That Wanted to Secede Loves 'Mr. Brexit' the Most
It’s 7:30 a.m. in Staten Island just five days before the presidential election, and seven friends are gathered in a Dunkin' Donuts in a strip-mall along bustling Hylan Boulevard excitedly discussing Donald Trump's sudden resurgence in the presidential race.
"I was pessimistic and I thought Trump was going uphill, but that outlook has changed," said Frank Aversa, a 63-year-old old managing partner in an engineering firm and veteran of the borough's Republican politics. "I think a lot of people will be surprised."
Much like Trump, Staten Island relishes its outsider status in the nation's largest city. It may have even chosen to secede from the city in the early 1990's without Rudy Giuliani, whose successful mayoral run was powered by the borough's frustrations with a Democratic mayor and the massive landfill swelling with the city's trash.
Years later, Giuliani is one of the most prominent advisers to Trump, who predicts he'll be known as "Mr. Brexit" once his movement surprises the world in the same way that Britain's vote to leave the European Union did. More than 80 percent of the island's primary voters chose Trump in the Republican primary back in April, just a few days after his campaign stopped there.
Those in the doughnut shop in this predominantly white, Republican stronghold see a race dramatically shifting in Trump's favor since the FBI announcement that it was investigating new e-mails tied Democrat Hillary Clinton's private server.
"That was a bombshell that made people stand up and say 'this is not someone we want in the White House,'” said Bobby Zahn, a 51-year-old utility worker from Staten Island's Oakwood section. What truly galls him about the latest revelations about the Clinton email story is its New York connection.
"She shouldn’t have done it, but oh well," Zahn said. "The big thing with this was the Anthony Weiner factor.”
But some Staten Island residents also have a visceral dislike of Clinton, who is leading in polling averages of the state by more than 20 percentage points.
Tony Marchitelli, a retired mechanic with the New York City Sanitation Department, said he felt so outraged when the Staten Island Advance, the borough's leading newspaper, endorsed Clinton that he canceled his subscription to the paper he'd received for 24 years.
“We’re becoming a banana republic. I think this is it. If we don’t take this chance, that’s it,” said Marchitelli, a former Democrat who said he switched parties after Barack Obama was elected in 2008 after the party left him behind. “We’re all working-class people in Staten Island. We’re not millionaires.”
About three-quarters of the 474,558 people who call Staten Island home are white, while 64 percent of the greater New York City’s 8.5 million people are, according to Census bureau statistics. The median household income of $74,043 is above the city-wide figure of $71,656, yet the borough remains a blue-collar community where seemingly everyone either works or knows someone who works for the city in the police or fire department, sanitation or civil service forces.
"Of course I've seen a change — a lot of people are going around with a wry smile on their face," said Zahn, who would only give occupation as utility worker. "Pretty much all over the island, there were no Hillary Clinton signs two weeks ago and there are still no Hillary Clinton signs.”
Of New York City's 13-member Congressional delegation, only Staten Island's representative is a Republican. And Republicans hold two of its three seats the city council, as well as spots in the state Assembly and Senate in Albany.
“I feel a lot more confident for Donald Trump with all of these revelations coming out about Hillary Clinton," said John Antoniello, chairman of the Republican Party of Staten Island. “There was not one event. It’s just a combination about all of the things coming out; the revelations with WikiLeaks and all of the stuff with the Clinton foundation. It just goes on and on.”
While Staten Island is growing less conservative as new residents have arrived, the excitement for Trump's candidacy here is palpable.
“They have Hillary Clinton right where they want her,” said Sam Pirozollo, an optometrist whose made headlines for building a 16-foot tall “T” sign after an earlier one was burned down on his property on the corner of busy Manor Road. “I sit on my corner here and I hear people in cars honk or say ‘go Trump!’ they might say ‘eff Trump,’ but no one here ever says they’re for Hillary.”
Pirozollo points down his street; not one Clinton sign, he said.
Throughout the campaign, Trump has focused on what he calls a rigged election and those fears ran rampant among many of the people interviewed for this story. Fears ranged from machines being outright hacked to the undue influence of political elites who are putting their thumbs on the scales for Clinton.
But after eight years of President Barack Obama, many voters here saw the events of the past week as offering the best chance for Republicans to recapture the White House. They cheered Thursday when a New York Times/CBS News poll showed Clinton only leading Trump nationally by a margin of 45 percent to 42 percent, an 11-percentage point turnaround from earlier this month.
It's not just one poll moving in Trump's direction. The online prediction site FiveThirtyEight revised its forecast on Thursday, giving Clinton a 65.8 percent shot at winning the race. A week ago, it had her chances of winning at 88 percent.
Munching on a cruller, Aversa, the engineer and doughnut shop-goer, said that for many Republicans on Staten Island, Trump's recent rise and support here are signs the Queens native will become the 45th president.
“Staten Island is ripe. I venture to say when they count the votes next Tuesday Donald Trump will win,” he said. “She’s been exposed for what she really is. The spin on Staten Island is a bit of rejoicing for lack of a better term.”