The staging of a political redemption story during a crucial party primary might seem an unlikely strategy in this season of referenda on Donald Trump, especially when the protagonist is an ex-con known nationwide for threatening to toss a journalist from a balcony in the U.S. Capitol. But Michael Grimm—who was elected to Staten Island’s sole U.S. House seat in 2010 on the momentum of the Tea Party movement, resigned after being found guilty of tax fraud, and is now a devotee of the president—would very much like a fresh hearing, and, if you please, a majority of the votes in New York’s June 26 Republican primary.
Tanned and trim, the forty-eight-year-old Marine veteran and former FBI agent possesses an obvious knack for retail politics, something his opponent, incumbent Dan Donovan, doesn’t quite. Released in 2016 after serving seven months in prison, Grimm is a tireless campaigner with seemingly no off-switch, and a reputation during his time in Congress for personally addressing the complaints and concerns of his constituents—whom he referred to as his “caseload.” Supporters still remember him fondly for his contribution to recovery efforts after Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the island in 2012.
Donovan, a former prosecutor and district attorney, secured the 11th congressional seat in a 2015 special election following Grimm’s conviction. He won reelection easily a year later and has generally served as a reliable Republican vote in Washington. According to FiveThirtyEight, Donovan has voted with the president more than 85 percent of the time, a loyalty that Trump recently rewarded with his endorsement.
With likely Democratic nominee Max Rose facing an uphill battle, one of these men will probably be representing Staten Island in Congress come 2019. To understand how that’s possible in New York City—which in 2016 went for Hillary Clinton by more than 22 percentage points over Trump—it’s helpful to look at the particular political and cultural history of New York’s so-called forgotten borough over the past half-century. Situated across New York Harbor from Manhattan, and separated from Brooklyn by a tidal strait known as The Narrows, Staten Island is a community apart from the rest of New York, and not just geographically.
Linking the borough to Brooklyn is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, at one time the longest suspension bridge in the world. Before the bridge was built in 1964, Staten Island was sparsely populated, consisting of small towns and verdant spaces. The Verrazano consequently offered an escape route of sorts for the many working-class Italian and Irish who were skeptical of urban liberalism and fearful of rising crime and drug use in the city. The resulting effect on the borough is obvious to this day. Whereas Brooklyn is dense, diverse, and distinctly urban, Staten Island remains a lower-density enclave of single-family homes, quiet neighborhoods, and a predominantly white population that shapes borough politics. This conservative redoubt in the shadows of the big city has been referred to as “New York’s Idaho,” among other less endearing terms.
There’s some truth to this caricature; the island’s political disposition is plainly more parochial and suburban than that of the surrounding city. But it belies a vibrant and competitive political culture that’s reminiscent of those found in small towns across the country. Competing yard signs adorn the lawns of quiet neighborhoods during election years, and highly contentious political contests are often the norm rather than the exception. The forgotten borough’s voters—unlike most of heavily Democratic New York City—regularly embrace ticket splitting, and so Republicans and Democrats can be found representing it in both state and local government. Still, there are more registered Democrats—the island is home to some of the last true “Reagan Democrats”—than Republicans, and union membership is high. The borough overwhelmingly voted for President Trump in 2016; it more narrowly supported Barack Obama during his 2012 reelection bid.
Indeed, Islanders would fail most red-state litmus tests, notes Richard Flanagan, professor of politics at the College of Staten Island, because the undergirding ideology that best defines the borough isn’t really conservatism at all, but rather an oppositional sensibility disdainful of the cultural cosmopolitanism of the nearby metropolis.
“Staten Islanders are willing to bear the scorn of the outside world,” Flanagan says. “Scorn is worn as a badge of honor.”