At some point between August 2007 and January 29 of this year, all references to Rep. Vito Fossella’s (R., N.Y.) wife and children suddenly disappeared from his congressional website. Few people noticed the change, but it was a sign of things to come.
Fossella’s blunder this month of having his mistress, Ret. Air Force Colonel Laura Fay, bail him out of jail for drunk driving may bring an end to a once-bright political career. No one knows for certain what his future plans are, but Fossella’s decision Wednesday to skip a meeting with representatives of the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce could be a sign that he’s had it with the limelight. It would fit with the melancholy tone of the press statement in which he admitted to having a mistress and their three-year-old child. His words were both sad and grammatically tortured: “While I understand that there will be many questions, including those about my political future, making any political decisions right now are furthest from my mind.”
The only Republican congressman representing any part of New York City, Fossella is the second most conservative member of the state delegation (American Conservative Union lifetime rating: 84 percent). He once flirted with the idea of running for mayor. His conservative views made a good fit for Staten Island and the ethnic enclaves of southwest Brooklyn that he represents. He remains a conservative even if he has drifted from his original moorings over time. His pro-life stand against funding embryo-killing research eroded under pressure from his personal situation: He believed that embryonic stem cells would help his son, who suffers from juvenile diabetes.
This small but significant change in voting behavior came after the changes in his personal behavior for which he is now paying. For his first few years as a congressman, Fossella rarely spent a night in Washington, according to former staff. When absolutely necessary, he would have them reserve him a hotel room after a late vote. But in 2001 or 2002, he rented an apartment in Washington. This would presumably spare him the grueling commute, but it would also create greater opportunity for mischief after he met his new girlfriend on a congressional junket to Europe.
Fossella’s scandal comes at a particularly bad time for his party. In a normal year, his district gives Democrats little heed and less traction. But recent Democratic victories in Mississippi and Louisiana demonstrate that “safe” districts no longer exist for Republicans — at least not for now. Every open seat looms as a potential loss. The most important thing for Republicans is to prevent him from resigning until July, so as to avoid another in the series of special elections that have so hurt Republicans.
Democrats will be watching carefully to see what Fossella does. They may be hoping he’ll stay in the race as a vulnerable incumbent. The two Democrats in the race now — repeat challenger Steve Harrison and City Councilman Domenic Recchia — are staying in, and they could get company. If Fossella quits, Republicans in New York’s 13th Congressional District do have a deep bench and a decent chance of keeping the seat.
“The seat is very, very much winnable for a Republican-Conservative,” said Jerry Kassar, Brooklyn chairman of New York’s Conservative Party, which has co-endorsed Fossella in each of his races. President Bush took 55 percent of the district’s vote in 2004, after losing the district to Al Gore four years earlier. Fossella’s 2006 race, which he won by 14 points, was the closest call he’d ever had. Kassar also expressed hope that John McCain’s presence on the ticket would boost the local congressional candidate by two to five points. “We’re going to have a stronger ticket running in the congressional seat this year,” he said.
As of Wednesday, Kassar said, the Conservative party had not had any discussions with Fossella about his future. “I like to tell people we base our endorsements on voting records. And based on voting records, he’s still someone we might endorse. But this is an unusual circumstance. It’s a problem of character and judgment. I’m quite disappointed, personally.”
Fossella’s district contains five major Republican players — all conservatives — who could reasonably make the run in his absence. State Sen. Marty Golden (R.), who represents the Brooklyn portion of the district, told me that he has no interest in the seat even if Fossella retires. “Vito first has to get the most important thing together — his family situation,” said Golden. “After that, he might find that the voters are pretty forgiving — you’ve seen what happens with our state government.” Golden, who is on the fast track to leadership in the state senate, must also consider the precarious majority that Republicans hold there. His departure to run for Congress could leave an opening for State Assemblyman Vinnie Gentile (D.), who formerly held Golden’s senate seat.
City Council Minority Leader Jimmy Oddo (R.) gained fame last fall when he launched a profanity-laced diatribe at a faux-journalist working for a European comedy show. The prankster, Pia Haraldsen, had attempted to make him look foolish on camera, and Oddo’s reaction included 16 uses of the F-word. The incident actually enhanced his credibility as a tough New Yorker who wasn’t born yesterday, and prompted some Staten Islanders to suggest him as a mayoral candidate. But Oddo has long had his sights set on becoming Staten Island borough president. He has already raised a substantial sum and hired a top Democratic consultant for that 2009 contest.
State Sen. Andrew Lanza (R.) once held Fossella’s old City Council seat. His only public comments have been supportive of the idea that Fossella should run again, and his office did not return calls. His former chief of staff, City Councilman Vinny Ignizio, is also mentioned for the race. Like Golden, Lanza, and Oddo, he is close to Fossella.
District Attorney Danny Donovan (R.), the first Republican DA to be elected in New York City since Thomas Dewey, is the most likely to enter the race if Fossella drops out. He won Staten Island with 68 percent of the vote in 2007. A source close to Donovan said that he will not run in a primary against Fossella, but he has his eye on the race if the seat becomes vacant. The downside to his candidacy is that he would be replaced through 2009 by an appointee of the Democratic governor.
Republicans can take solace in the strength their party still enjoys in Staten Island and southwest Brooklyn. But they should not kid themselves: When a House seat in the heart of Mississippi goes back to the Democrats, they would be wrong to take a seat in New York City for granted.
– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.