Fossella Ducks But Can’t Hide

In 1990, Guy Molinari became Staten Island borough president and handed down his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to his daughter, Susan.

She asked him what to do, and he gave her a single piece of political advice.

“I said, ‘Answer the tough phone calls-always answer the tough ones,'” Mr. Molinari recalled. “The tough ones always determine who does well.”

Ms. Molinari retired from Congress in 1997. Her successor, Vito Fossella, apparently didn’t get that speech. He can be a hard man to reach when faced with a tough question. It’s a feature that helps explain why he’s one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country, and why Democrats are already planning a hard fight for his seat in 2006.

I first tried to reach Mr. Fossella’s press secretary, Craig Donner, on Nov. 18, the day after the Republican House caucus voted to change its ethics rules to allow members to remain in leadership after being indicted in state court.

The House Republicans changed their rule because Majority Leader Tom DeLay may be indicted by a Texas grand jury on charges that he funneled corporate money into Texas campaigns. Regardless of the merits of the charges, the new DeLay Rule didn’t look good. Newt Gingrich and his supporters had proposed the rule to distinguish themselves from the scandal-tainted Democrats. They made the point that they were the party of reform.

Now the Republicans control both houses, and the Democrats are trying to adopt the reform mantle. The DeLay Rule offered them a great opportunity. The rule was passed by a voice vote, which means there’s no record of how any individual member voted. But there was also nothing to prevent members from revealing which way they voted. Many members-particularly those who voted against the rule change-did this gladly, and before long a database had emerged at a Web site called the Daily DeLay, which catalogs members’ votes. You can expect to start hearing more about the vote when Congressional campaigns heat up in 2006.

At the time, even conservative commentators like David Brooks and John Podhoretz winced. Mr. Fossella’s hometown newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, called the rule change “brazen hypocrisy” in a searing editorial. But the paper didn’t seem to be having much luck determining how the local Congressman voted.

“Why won’t they tell the public how individual members, such as Staten Island’s Rep. Vito Fossella, voted?” the paper asked.

Mr. Fossella, who has accepted $10,000 from Mr. DeLay’s political action committee, didn’t seem to want to talk about it. I called his press secretary, Mr. Donner, six times, and sent him three e-mails. He always seemed to be “on the other line,” according to the receptionist.

Members of Congress can’t hide forever, though. I eventually tracked down Mr. Fossella after a breakfast forum at the Sheraton New York Hotel, more than two weeks after the voice vote. He copped to voting for the DeLay Rule.

“I was in support of the move,” Mr. Fossella finally said. “The fundamental morality in this country is you’re innocent until proven guilty.”

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Two of his delegation-mates, Republicans Peter King of Long Island and John Sweeney from upstate, voted in favor and responded promptly and convincingly to questions about it, giving more or less the same rationale as Mr. Fossella without communicating quite the same level of political fear.

Mr. Fossella has good reason to be a little worried. He survived a surprisingly close re-election in November, when an energetic, underfinanced septuagenarian, Frank Barbaro, picked up 41 percent of the vote. Democrats have already begun floating a couple of capable candidates against him for 2006: City Councilman Michael McMahon and State Senator-elect Diane Savino.

Mr. Barbaro zeroed in on Mr. Fossella’s down-the-line allegiance to the House Republican leadership, referring to him on the campaign trail as Mr. DeLay’s “lackey.” Expect Democrats in 2006 to tie him to House leaders who are more conservative than his district and increasingly viewed as tainted.

Mr. Fossella has the highest lifetime ranking in the New York State delegation from the American Conservative Union-one he earned with votes to shield gun-makers from liability claims and to block federal financing for abortions in military hospitals. That puts him to the right of upstaters like Thomas Reynolds, who’s actually a member of the leadership. Mr. Fossella was also behind a much-ridiculed idea to house visiting Republicans on a Norwegian cruise liner during the Republican National Convention in New York.

Mr. Molinari, who has a long, rancorous relationship with his fellow Republican, raises another question: What has Mr. Fossella gotten for his loyalty? Unlike Susan Molinari, for example, he’s not a member of the House leadership, and he’s not viewed as a player on Capitol Hill.

“There’s no sense in hiding your votes,” said Mr. Molinari. “They have to start to wake up a little bit. He’s been in Congress longer than my daughter was, and Susan by that time had established herself as a national figure.”