Staten Island Democrats Pick Vincent Gentile to Run for Michael Grimm’s Seat

Councilman Vincent Gentile (Photo: Will Bredderman/New York Observer).

Councilman Vincent Gentile (Photo: Will Bredderman/New York Observer). (Photo: Will Bredderman for Observer)

The Staten Island Democratic Party officially nominated Brooklyn Councilman Vincent Gentile tonight to take on Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan in the race to replace former Congressman Michael Grimm.

Just over two months away from the May 5 special election, Mr. Gentile accepted his party’s nod to run for the seat, which consists mostly of Staten Island with some smaller slices of Brooklyn. The councilman–widely seen as the party’s third choice after Staten Island Assemblyman Michael McMahon and former Congressman Michael McMahon opted not to run–emphasized his determination to defeat the heavily favored Mr. Donovan, a Republican.

“What do you say we win this thing? You heard the saying, you know the saying, ‘You gotta be in it to win it?’ Well we’re in it! So let’s win it!” he declared.

Emphasizing his campaign slogan “A Fresh Start,” Mr. Gentile mocked the Staten Island Republican establishment, which has controlled the seat for 31 of the last 33 years. The pol alluded to former Congresswoman Susan Molinari’s abrupt 1997 resignation to take a job as a television journalist, former Congressman Vito Fossella‘s decision not to run for re-election in 2008 after a drunk driving arrest revealed he had a secret family in the D.C. suburbs and Mr. Grimm stepping down last month after he pleaded guilty to a federal tax evasion charge.

“The last three Republican members of Congress this leadership gave us all disappeared into the wind. All gone, right? All gone. One left us flat, and the other two resigned in disgrace—one of them now a convict and awaiting sentence,” he said, to laughter and applause from the assembled Democrats. “Now this same cohort of leaders with this embarrassing and abysmal record want to tell the good people of the 11th Congressional District who they have next in the queue to carry the title of Congress member. And to them and to you, I say, ‘Haven’t they embarrassed us enough?'”

He added: “You know the old saying, ‘three strikes, you’re out?’ Well, on May 5, they’re out, and we’re coming up to the plate.”

Mr. Gentile gave a possible preview of the campaign trail rhetoric he will deploy against Mr. Donovan, contrasting the district attorney’s lack of a lawmaking background with his own long tenure in the State Senate and City Council.

“I’m the only one in this race with experience as a legislator. My opponent has none, and I’m going into my 18th year as a legislator,” he said. “So just as you wouldn’t expect a candlestick-maker to become a dentist, or the shopkeeper to become an astronaut, you wouldn’t expect a D.A. with no legislative experience to become a legislator. Especially when you have an experienced legislator applying for the same job.”

The councilman also hit Mr. Donovan for his handling of the Eric Garner case. Mr. Donovan was unable to convince a grand jury to indict a wgute police officer in the death of Garner, a black Staten Island man, last year.

“Once the grand jury acted, this district attorney did not come out in public and face the people of Staten Island and try to explain to the people of Staten Island. He put out a press release,” said Mr. Gentile, calling for the release of transcripts of the grand jury proceedings. “And when there was disruption in the streets, chaos was breaking loose, our district attorney was nowhere to be seen. And that’s not leadership. That’s not leadership. And that is more reflective on the kind of leader he would be in Congress, and the kind of follower he would be in Congress.”

Mr. Donovan’s camp declined to comment on Mr. Gentile’s attacks. The district is predominantly white, and home to many police officers, and most political insiders doubt the Garner grand jury decision will negatively impact Mr. Donovan in the race.

Mr. Gentile ended his speech with an appeal to not allow borough loyalties to decide the race. Despite multiple attempts, no Brooklynite has ever won a race to represent the district, where more than two-thirds of the votes are in Staten Island.

“I know firsthand that we Staten Islanders and we Brooklynites are all from the same neck of the woods,” Mr. Gentile said.

Mr. Grimm dealt a humiliating defeat to former Brooklyn Councilman Domenic Recchia last year, even though the Democratic challenger out-raised and out-spent the indicted Republican incumbent.

Staten Island Councilwoman Debi Rose, the only other elected official present at the event, argued that Mr. Gentile has a strong chance of winning the election despite the abysmal history of Brooklynites who have sought the seat. She noted that no African-American had ever represented part of Staten Island prior to herself.

“That’s how things change. There’s a first time. There was never a black elected official on Staten Island, but I’m it. So there’s a first time for everything,” she said.