Does Michael McMahon Want to Go Back to Congress?

Former Congressman Michael McMahon appeared at a Democratic club meeting last night, hinting that he would be interested in replacing Michael Grimm if the opportunity arose.

Michael McMahon when he served in Congress. (Photo: Facebook)
Michael McMahon when he served in Congress. (Photo: Facebook)

Michael McMahon had a lot to say last night about the district he once represented in Congress,

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But the predecessor to Michael Grimm, the indicted Republican representative, would not say whether he wanted to go back to Washington–even though every public step he’s taken so far indicates he’s hungry to get back in the political arena.

“No comment, no comment,” Mr. McMahon, a Democrat, repeatedly answered when the Observer pressed him about whether he wanted to return to Congress.

Mr. McMahon wore a coy smile.

The ex-congressman and city councilman appeared on a post-election panel at a meeting of the Bay Ridge Democrats in Brooklyn yesterday. The progressive club, which backed Democrat Domenic Recchia Jr.’s failed bid against Mr. Grimm, allowed Mr. McMahon to speak extensively about just what went wrong for Democrats last week–and show the small gathering of die-hard Democrats that he was not out of the political loop.

“The problem is that people did not vote,” Mr. McMahon explained. “You have a district that has a red DNA like this district has, it’s not insurmountable, it can be done, but it’s natural tendency is to vote Republican.”

“The turnout is low in this congressional district, you’re going to have a bad year for Democrats,” he added, arguing that when turnout drops in the district, “Republican performance goes up.”

Mr. McMahon’s future is suddenly bright after Mr. Grimm’s win. Now a lobbyist, Mr. McMahon is quietly floating himself as a candidate for a potential special election in the Staten Island and Brooklyn-based district if Mr. Grimm is found guilty on tax evasion charges and steps aside next year. The last Democrat to represent the swing district, Mr. McMahon would be a formidable candidate against whoever the Staten Island Republican Party nominates to run.

As Mr. McMahon himself explained, the ideologically polarized district–a northern chunk of Staten Island is overwhelmingly Democratic while its South Shore is packed with conservative Republicans–can be favorable to Democrats if turnout is high enough. Mr. McMahon won an open race in 2008, the year President Barack Obama was first elected, and fell to Mr. Grimm in 2010, when a national Tea Party wave and lower turnout blunted the Obama coalition that had powered Democrats everywhere. (Mr. McMahon declined to challenge Mr. Grimm in two subsequent cycles.)

Mr. McMahon, perhaps distancing himself from unpopular liberals in the area like Mayor Bill de Blasio, said successful Democrats needed to cater to a wider ideological spectrum, tailoring a message to anxious middle class voters who may not care as much about how high the minimum wage rises. In a nod to the GOP voters he would need to win over again, Mr. McMahon even offered praise for former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican folk hero, as the type of politician who “projected leadership quality.”

“We have to work on a message that gets people out across the spectrum,” he said. “I understand the progressive message is the heart and soul of the Democratic Party but in districts like New York 11, we have to find a way as Democrats to broaden that message.”

Alluding to another panelist who praised Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy for sticking to his liberal guns and winning, Mr. McMahon said that strategy in certain places could only take you so far. “We have to find a way to include centrists and moderates so that the Democrats can have the majority to win because the progressives can win in certain contexts, but there’s not enough in places where we need to broaden that message. And that is true, in my opinion, in this congressional district.”

Though he never addressed his ambitions directly, Mr. McMahon said Mr. Grimm exploited the potential for a special election to woo voters away from Mr. Recchia. The counter-intuitive strategy, Mr. McMahon argued, motivated voters to choose Mr. Grimm as a way to either keep the seat in GOP hands or give the district another shot at having a new representative after many couldn’t bring themselves to support the gaffe-prone Recchia.

“He went on Geraldo Rivera and [said] well, ‘I get convicted, I’ll resign and there will be a special election.’ When I first heard that I said, ‘why would he even infer that he’s being convicted, right?'” Mr. McMahon recalled. “Their message was, if you vote for him–and even if you gotta hold your nose when you do it–we’ll get a special election because we don’t think this other guy [Mr. Recchia] is ready and we wanna hold the seat for a Republican.'”

The ex-congressman said he also heard voters saying that they would want to hold the seat for a “Staten Island Democrat, an assemblyman or a former congressman.”

Mr. McMahon also took a swipe at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for mismanaging Mr. Recchia’s campaign. The former congressman fell out of favor with national Democrats after he voted against President Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2010–it’s not clear yet that if Mr. McMahon ran again, the DCCC would offer the same robust financial support they gave Mr. Recchia.

“They don’t incorporate the local color and talent and opinion, so they do what they wanna do,” he said, arguing the amount of negative mail attacking Mr. Grimm for his indictment backfired. “Maybe people who we know are gonna vote, one or two of those mailings would be enough and then we gotta pivot off and make the case why we should vote for Domenic.”

Does Michael McMahon Want to Go Back to Congress?