In Defense of Michael Grimm

by Christine Sisto
Why the indicted congressman’s constituents still seem to like him.

After surrendering to federal authorities who have hit him with twenty charges, Congressman Michael Grimm held a press conference Monday in which the New York Republican stated that he could “finally” defend himself against what he called “shameful government leaks.”

Grimm vowed to “fight tooth and nail” against the charges and has said he will continue with his campaign for re-election to a third term.

Grimm has been under investigation for more than two years regarding alleged misuse of campaign funds. The congressman also made national headlines in January when he threatened to throw NY1 reporter Michael Scotto off a balcony for asking him about the allegations.

Grimm was my congressman before I moved to Washington D.C., and he was also my boss before I started working for National Review. I interned in his Washington office on Capitol Hill when I was in college and worked on his 2012 re-election campaign, where I met my boyfriend, who is currently a staffer for the congressman.

I have no idea if Grimm is guilty or innocent, but his indictment does greatly change the political landscape of New York City.

That the indictment finally hit this year, in 2014, is interesting, because he is facing a tougher challenge than he has in the past. The Democrat who ran against Grimm in 2012 was a joke. Mark Murphy, son of disgraced former Congressman John Murphy (who was sent to jail for his part in the Abscam scandal), was selected by the Staten Island Democratic party to run against Grimm, but his campaign was lackluster. Murphy never showed up to debate Grimm and never gave any explanation for his absence. He raised little money, about $900,000 compared to Grimm’s $2 million, and the only advertisements his campaign produced were direct hits against Grimm’s character. I heard Murphy speak a few times and he did not seem to be taking his campaign seriously. In turn, his own party did not take him seriously. When the New York Times profiled Murphy, the head of the Staten Island Democratic Association told the paper, “If we had a superstar, you’d run the superstar every time.” It was clear from the beginning that Grimm would win in 2012.

This year, however, Grimm is up against a competent opponent. Councilman Domenic Recchia, who has held his seat for ten years, is well-known in New York City politics and has proven that he can raise money.

Despite this, Recchia is not the best public servant. He became infamous in Brooklyn for doing very little for his Coney Island constituents in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In fact, after seeing how well Grimm handled the disaster recovery, a number of Recchia’s constituents, including the owners of the world-famous Totono’s Pizzeria, called Grimm’s office asking for help.

But Recchia remains a formidable opponent, and if Grimm isn’t worried about running against him in 2014, he should be.

This makes the timing of Grimm’s indictment especially bad. Before this arrest, it was generally expected that Grimm would win in a tight race. It was also expected that the House would remain in GOP hands and that the Republicans might even pick up control of the Senate, as National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke has previously reported.

Former Congressman Guy Molinari, one of Grimm’s advisors, has speculated that “[Democratic Senator Charles] Schumer has a lot to do with [the indictment]… It’s a witch hunt—a political witch hunt.” State Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long referred to “some political shenanigans,” noting that the indictment was announced April 25, the last day the GOP could replace Grimm on the ballot.

Schumer could gain if Grimm were to resign or lose re-election. As the only Republican holding federal elected office from New York City, Grimm has an important spot in the city’s politics. Schumer currently holds an unofficial position as the city’s most important politician, and there have been whispers in political circles that Schumer feared running against Grimm for Senate in the future. With Grimm arrested or simply no longer running, Schumer’s position as the Big Apple’s big cheese is secure.

The charges Grimm currently faces, however, do not stem from campaign fundraising, which was the original focus of the FBI’s investigation, but from a small health food restaurant Grimm owned before he became an elected official. All of the charges derive from paying restaurant employees, some of whom were illegal aliens, in cash. Many if not most of New York City’s business owners could be arrested on the same charge. Did it really take the Justice Department more than two years to figure out that Grimm paid busboys in cash?

I was in my hometown this past weekend, and noted that Staten Islanders, according to local media still seem to support the congressman. Grimm’s constituents feel he represents them well in Washington. Indeed, Grimm’s flood insurance bill, H.R. 3370, truly helped Superstorm Sandy victims whose flood insurance rates skyrocketed after the storm.

The day after  Sandy hit, the congressman ordered everyone on his campaign staff, including me, to come to Staten Island and help with the recovery. I watched as Grimm slogged through mud and water, joined Staten Islanders to pull treasured items out of their homes, helped them get their cars started, and simply allowed them to cry on his shoulder.

We set up a headquarters in the Staten Island Hilton and Grimm was often the last to leave, around midnight or later. He was often scolded by his staff for not getting in front of the cameras enough to discuss all he was doing. Few politicians I know (and I know a few) would have done so much physically and emotionally demanding work themselves.

I do not work for the congressman anymore. For me the only potential effect of this indictment is the likelihood that my home district, where my mother still lives, will go into the hands of a dunce like Recchia and my beloved Brooklyn will fall further into the abyss of Democratic control.

However, I do know that Grimm is an excellent representative to his district and was an excellent boss to me.  Grimm offered me my first job out of college and helped me along my career path. I have always considered him one of the good ones, and I still do. Without making any judgments about a matter for the courts, I hope New York City, the center of American culture and thought, will not go further to the wolves, the donkeys.

— Christine Sisto is an editorial assistant at National Review.