On Staten Island, a Nasty Little War

Staten Island’s once-verdant hills and wetlands soupy with the lusty fecundity of Nature are now covered with little boxes made of ticky-tacky, filled with over 400,000 people straight out of The Sopranos . It also happens to be home to one of the city’s most venomous (and unjustifiably unnoticed) political campaigns–the race for the island’s borough presidency.

The post is as impotent as, say, Earl Marshal of England. Though the City Charter lists various fictional functions, the borough presidents’ real duties are to give their respective boroughs some kind of identity, to reward the loyal, the lame-brained and the easily pleased with ceremonial appointments, and to provide employment for about 100 other people who at least have the sense to demand a salary for acting as toadies.

Unlike the other boroughs, Staten Island has a somewhat functioning two-party system, meaning there will be a real election for the position come November. Voters in the other boroughs may not even be aware that the borough presidents are on the ballot this year.

The three top contenders for Staten Island B.P. are:

· James Molinaro, currently deputy borough president, who has spent the last 12 years assisting incumbent Guy Molinari, a Republican, in not accomplishing his non-tasks. Mr. Molinaro, a former chairman of the island’s Conservative Party, has used his muscle and clout with Mr. Molinari and Governor George Pataki to strong-arm the local Republicans into giving him their endorsement.

Mr. Molinaro has raised more money for his race than Herman Badillo has for his Mayoral campaign. Much of Mr. Molinaro’s money comes from builders and contractors, which makes Mr. Molinaro’s self-portrait as the enemy of overdevelopment (overdevelopment has become the main issue on Staten Island, about three decades too late to do anything about it) stunningly ironic. The local Newhouse-owned paper, The Staten Island Advance, has made little secret of its preference for Mr. Molinaro.

· Jerome X. O’Donovan, a veteran City Council member from the island’s North Shore–the only place where a non-Italian can get elected on the island–is the Democratic nominee. He discovered that Staten Island is overdeveloped after a near-death experience in 1993, when he won his reelection by an unexpectedly less-than-overwhelming margin and began casting about for an issue to convince people he wasn’t asleep.

· Robert A. Straniere, a Republican Assemblyman from the island’s South Shore, is challenging Mr. Molinaro for the Republican nomination. Mr. Straniere has spent the past two decades waiting for State Senator John Marchi, once the third-most-powerful man in the state, to retire or die, which in Mr. Marchi’s case may not happen in that order. He has been fending off a series of front-page attacks in The Advance charging that he is what amounts to a serial bankrupt, and that the apartment he owns in Manhattan makes him a faux islander. Mr. Molinaro, engaged in a bitter battle with the Assemblyman, has rather enjoyed these attacks.

The compact–nay, squat–Mr. Molinaro reminds one very much of Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar ; if, that is, Mr. Robinson had played the part with a mouth and head full of marbles. Mr. Molinaro was a junkyard owner who became a real-estate salesman, and he looks every inch the part. Mr. O’Donovan is a better-looking man (he once had a bit part in the Al Pacino film City Hall , playing the City Council speaker), but the more he talks, the more confused you, and he, seem to get.

Mr. Straniere, who was recently outed as a toupee-wearer (this is the level of debate in the race; then again, we already noted that one of the candidates is an ex-junkyard owner), is the most experienced orator, but he’s fallen into the legislator’s habit of saying less than meets the ear.

The only real issue here is which one of these veteran politicians will cap his career as his party’s de facto boss. Staten Island’s powerful real-estate interests are watching intently to see if Mr. Straniere can foil the vaunted Molinari-Molinaro machine, or if Mr. Molinaro can manage, by winning, to control both the Republican and Conservative parties. If Mr. O’Donovan wins, Democrats will control the civil list of retainers for the first time since 1989. Despite rumors of the death of clubhouse politics, political patronage can be, and is, wielded like a mace in the city’s borough halls to reward the obsequious and punish the insufficiently awestruck.

If that sounds bad, well, it could be worse. In one of the island’s three City Council districts, the incumbent is trying to criminalize aluminum baseball bats for Little Leaguers.

Terry Golway will return to this space in several weeks.