NEW YORK (AP) — A 20-count federal indictment and threatening to toss a reporter off a balcony might immediately disqualify a congressman from a bid for a third term.
Not in Staten Island and a stretch of Brooklyn where some defiant voters stand by pugnacious Republican Rep. Michael Grimm, dismissing the actions at the heart of his legal woes — charges of tax evasion, fraud, cash payments to illegal workers at a Manhattan restaurant — as unsavory but typical in New York.
"You go into any business, any restaurant in New York City and you tell me who never got paid cash. What kind of nonsense is that?" said 58-year-old Nanci Roden, still agitated after watching Grimm face Democratic challenger Domenic Recchia at a senior center debate in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. "What garment industry never hired undocumented workers? What restaurant business doesn't hire undocumented workers?"
Grimm, a former Marine and ex-FBI agent, and Recchia, a former New York City councilman from Brooklyn, are locked in a close race that's both personal and business in one of the half dozen congressional districts where Democrats have a legitimate shot at winning despite the abysmal, second-term outlook for President Barack Obama's party.
Republicans are certain to pad their House majority in midterm elections in five weeks.
Recchia, 55, has the solid support of the national party, which has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars, plans to spend at least $112,000 on cable ads next week and helped register more than 6,000 new voters in the district. Grimm has a limited amount of campaign cash — he's spending some $100,000 for cable ads this week and next but hasn't reserved air time after Oct. 13 — and no public support from the national party.
What the 44-year-old Grimm does have is a dedicated constituency that understands why he might say to a reporter who tried to question him about the FBI investigation: "I'll break you in half. Like a boy," and threaten to throw him over the balcony.
"He's not a wussy guy," said Mark Troiano, 62, a battalion chief with the New York Fire Department and a Republican voter in Staten Island who would never cast a ballot for a Democrat, especially after six years of Obama.
Pressed about the incident after Wednesday's debate in Brooklyn, Grimm said he apologized to the reporter and that he made a mistake after a stressful day in Congress last January. His answer captured the us-versus-them mentality of GOP-leaning Staten Island, which makes up 65 percent of the district.
"I live in Staten Island, and Staten Island is the forgotten borough in so many ways, and if you're not aggressive and not a fighter, the bottom line is you're not going to get anything," the Brooklyn-born Grimm told reporters. "As a Staten Islander, sometimes I get my Italian up."
Recchia said Grimm is a liar — he lied to the FBI, the U.S. attorney and the voters. At a boisterous debate before a standing-room-only crowd, Recchia cast the incumbent as persona non grata with the GOP leadership and powerless as he's missing from his one major committee, House Financial Services. Grimm left the panel, saying he will return after his legal problems are over.
Grimm, who pleaded not guilty in April, has a December court date.
"I'm someone they can be proud of," Recchia said in an interview. "I'm someone who is going to pay attention to them 100 percent, not someone who has to worry about their 20-count criminal indictment. What people have to realize about Michael Grimm. He's ineffective. The leadership in Congress doesn't want any part of him. He has no committee. What could he do to help the people of the district?"
Recchia structured his appeal to seniors with a pledge never to privatize Social Security or turn Medicare into a voucher system while tarring Grimm as part of the "most ineffective Congress in the history of America."
Recchia is using all means of communications to win over voters, including a message on the ticker greeting riders of the Staten Island ferry. Grimm is getting some establishment support as the Defending Main Street political action committee plans to invest $100,000 for ground operations, and the New York State GOP sent out a mailing.
At a senior center on Staten Island, Recchia picked up a musical-and-policy endorsement from Jon "Bowzer" Bauman, a former member of the 1970s do-wop band Sha Na Na. Now 67 and awaiting the birth of his first grandchild, Bauman is more political advocate than T-shirted greaser as he travels the country backing Democratic candidates through his organization "Senior Votes Count."
Bauman played Chopin on an upright piano — he trained at Julliard — and then sang "Goodnight Sweetheart."
"I love the music of the '50s and '60s, but that doesn't mean I want to return to the '50s and '60s," he told the seniors.