If the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has its way, the field operation built to unseat Congressman Michael Grimm will be the most aggressive and sophisticated in the city’s congressional history.
Congressman Steve Israel, a Long Island Democrat and chair of the DCCC, is promising an unprecedented effort to drive out Mr. Grimm, a Republican, and elect his Democratic rival, former Councilman Domenic Recchia.
“To the extent that we do have a financial advantage, it’s going to be spent in two areas: number one, reminding people that their congressman is spending all his time defending himself from indictments and not defending the middle class from an economic squeeze and number two, the most aggressive field program that has ever been implemented in a New York City congressional district,” Mr. Israel told the Observer in a sit-down interview yesterday.
The DCCC recently announced that they have booked nearly $1 million in air time to boost Mr. Recchia, a relative unknown in the Staten Island and Brooklyn-based district, and attack Mr. Grimm, who pleaded not guilty to a federal indictment in April that hit him with mail, wire and health care fraud charges related to a Manhattan restaurant he managed before he was elected to Congress. After the indictment, Mr. Grimm struggled mightily to raise money as national Republicans withdrew their support to back candidates elsewhere. Meanwhile, Mr. Recchia–who Mr. Israel repeatedly called the ideal Democrat to take on Mr. Grimm–significantly out-raised the Republican.
But Mr. Israel is convinced the race remains a “toss up” and not an easy win for Democrats, as national pundits predict. For one, he argued the billionaire Koch brothers and Karl Rove, a powerful Republican consultant and former Bush administration official, will still look to spend heavily on behalf of Mr. Grimm as national Republicans “outsource” their work to them (it’s not clear this will actually happen). And Mr. Israel said he was concerned with the “Republican infrastructure” on Staten Island that has kept the GOP in power while the rest of the city becomes more Democratic.
Mr. Israel said Mr. Recchia’s field operation–“dozens” of people knocking on doors, phone banking and using “state of the art technology” to identify “persuadable voters”–would win out in the end over Mr. Grimm, who has few paid campaign operatives and a shoe-string budget. “This is an interesting district because Obama lost it in ’08 and won it in ’12, so you know this is quintessentially a swing district and that’s where field program comes in. You know, you may not be able to win it in the air, with commercials but you can win it on the ground with individual persuasion,” he said.
Repeatedly reminding voters of Mr. Grimm’s indictment will be a top task for the DCCC. Mr. Israel called the indictment “fairly amorphous” for some and said few voters, as of August, are paying attention to the race. (The election will be held in November.)
“The indictments up to now have been fairly amorphous and people haven’t been paying much attention to them. When these races fully engage and people know that they don’t have the option of not paying their taxes, but Mike Grimm took that option … when people know that it wasn’t just the indictments, he believed he should be treated special and skirt the law, they’re going be less persuaded to vote for him,” Mr. Israel argued.
Social media, Mr. Israel said, will be a significant part of the equation, too.
“The technology for field has changed so dramatically just in the past four years, even the past two–that it’s a completely different ballgame,” he said. But what will the Recchia social media outreach look like? “I’d have to tell you but I’d have to kill you. It’s all in the bat cave,” he said, laughing.
Mr. Israel failed to identify individual neighborhoods that Mr. Recchia will be targeting–any place that supported Republican John McCain in 2008 and President Barack Obama in 2012 is likely in the cross hairs–and reiterated the poll-tested message that Democrats will be unleashing this fall: the Republican-controlled Congress is failing the middle class and women and shut down the government. What’s less clear is if Staten Islanders feel this way about the Republican brand; after all, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, lost the borough last fall to a Republican contender.
The Staten Island GOP is blasting Mr. Recchia for his ties to Mr. de Blasio, a former colleague, and the Democratic establishment. City Democrats are not particularly popular on Staten Island, but Mr. Israel said the outcome of city elections would have little bearing on the contest this fall.
“In this kind of district, Domenic has to obviously continue to do well in Brooklyn, he’s got to cut into Grimm support in Staten Island which he’s already doing and the polls tell us that,” Mr. Israel said. “And he’s got to be an aggressive candidate.”
Mr. Grimm, in a statement, said “Washington liberals” knew nothing about Staten Island.
“Like Recchia, Washington liberals don’t know the first thing about Staten Island. Recchia lives in Brooklyn, voted to add more tolls, raised our property taxes, voted himself a third term in office, and serves as the Mayor’s ultra-progressive puppet,” said a spokesman for Mr. Grimm. “All the Manhattan liberals in the world will not be able to overcome Recchia’s shameful 12-year voting record in the City Council, which is probably why he was afraid to mention it in his own commercial – obviously trying to fool Staten Islanders.”
Updated with a statement from Mr. Grimm’s campaign.