Soon after midnight last Tuesday Michael Grimm went from being an obscure congressional candidate on the distant borough of Staten Island to one of the most powerful people in New York City.
“We are going to Washington and we are going to take Capitol Hill!” Grimm told hundreds of supporters squeezed into a hotel ballroom.
He added, “If I was Nancy Pelosi, I’d be scared. But I’m not Nancy Pelosi. I am a Marine. I was FBI. And I am the new congressman for the 13th District!”
Grimm’s Cinderella-like transformation came about for two reasons: his out of nowhere triumph over Democratic incumbent Michael McMahon in a race that was on exactly no one’s radar screen as one to watch, and the victory of Grimm-like figures–backed by Tea Party activists without previous professional experience–all over the country, flipping the House back to Republican control.
If New York needs something from Washington for the next two years-and New York always needs something from Washington-no longer can it rely on the old lions with names like Rangel, Nadler, and Maloney. Their ability to deliver for the city has just been reduced to nil. For now, Grimm is the guy.
Which explains why six days after the election, Grimm had his first face-to-face with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the bullpen at City Hall. The meeting was more than a little fraught. He had endorsed McMahon during the election and only a few days prior during a swing through China Bloomberg had said of Grimm’s incoming class of Congressman, “If you look at the U.S., you look at who we are electing to Congress, to the Senate, they can’t read,” adding, with a sniff, “I’ll bet you a bunch of these people don’t have passports. We’re about to start a trade war with China if we’re not careful here – only because nobody knows where China is. Nobody knows what China is.”
In an interview on the wooden benches outside of the Mayor’s office, Grimm said all was forgiven, but in many ways Grimm is exactly the kind of congressman-to-be that has so many worried about what the next two years will look like.
A former marine and former undercover FBI agent, he made up for in biography what he lacked utterly in the way of experience or policy chops. When asked who he met with in Bloomberg’s office, Grimm needed to pull out of his wallet the name of Michelle Goldstein, who heads the mayor’s office of federal affairs in D.C. (This is something like the equivalent of meeting with Barack Obama and not knowing who Rahm Emanuel is.) Even after a long campaign, he still tends to speak in broad clichés instead of policy specifics.
Asked, for example, what programs he would cut, Grimm talks about running the federal government “more like a city,” decries waste and then in an old-school accent straight out of his native Queens say, “This is going to be one of our biggest fights. And I’m gearing up. I’m wrapping my hands, telling my trainer to get my gloves out of the closet because we are going to have a fight.”
Asked how he was able to win a race that wasn’t on even some of the more expansive list of targeted seats, he says, “It’s not that I’m smarter or more talented than anyone else but I’m willing to work harder than anyone can imagine because failure isn’t an option for me. It just simply isn’t an option…I have a level of confidence that I really know I can get something done if I give 110 percent.”
Okay, so Daniel Patrick Moynihan it ain’t but, candor aside, most political observers think that Grimm added a spot of red to otherwise Blue New York for two reasons: a national wave that surprisingly came right up to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and some head-slapping gaffes on the part of his Democratic opponent.
The district that McMahon won in 2008–after the Republican incumbent admitted to fathering a second child in the DC suburbs and left in disgrace–actually voted for John McCain over Barack Obama. And despite being a ferry ride from Manhattan, it has one of the more active Tea Party groups in the region, and the Tea Partiers loved Grimm.
“I am asking him to defund and roll back the socialist agenda of Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama,” said Frank Santarpia, a local Tea Party leader who admitted now that he too is starting to sound like a cliché. “He doesn’t study talking points or take surveys. On almost every position he has mirrored my own thoughts on it.”
Sarah Palin made her lone local endorsement for Grimm, and his Tea Party supporters gleefully sent around a video of Grimm getting into finger jabbing, screaming confrontation with elderly McMahon volunteer when they both were canvassing outside a supermarket. But all of the Palins in the world couldn’t have swung the seat the Republican’s way were it not for the many gaffes of the McMahon campaign. In July, an aide to McMahon compiled a list of Jewish donors to the Grimm campaign and handed it to the Observer as a way of showing that outside interests were trying to influence the election (the aide was fired within minutes of the story breaking).
Then, the week before the election, the McMahon campaign invited Grimm’s ex-wife and her parents to sit in the front row of a debate between the two candidates. The move turned McMahon into a national laughing stock–even “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” made hay of it–and surely swung any undecided voters into the Republican column.
“Those were the bookends of the race,” Grimm said.
Now Grimm has received glowing profiles in The New York Daily News and The Wall Street Journal, and the Staten Island Advance seems to be tracking his every move. As the lone New York City Republican in Congress, he will have access to media and fundraisers that will make his fellow GOPers–from here and from around the country–beat a path to his door.
He is, he says, at the forefront of something much larger than one campaign, a revolution of sorts that arrived in the big city with pitchforks and a mandate to stop an activist, liberal federal government dead in its tracks
“Everywhere I went the momentum that I felt, saw, smelled and tasted was there. The people had spoken and I listened. And that’s what I pray for. You know, I say my prayers every night. I pray for strength, courage and wisdom, that I can lead well and that I continue to listen. As long as I listen, I can stay in office as long as you want.”