Tales of Electoral Hijinks, Part 1: Staten Island Follies

Congressional Elections, US Elections

Don’t you just hate it when a routine traffic stop results in the revelation of your second family, the destruction of your career, and the end of a local political dynasty?  Yeah, I hate that too.

Am I, like, in trouble or something?

Vito Fossella (R-Staten Island): Family man

GOP congressman Vito Fossella had the distinction of representing the only district in New York City that apparently contained any Republicans.  NY-13, which consists of Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, had previously been represented by Susan Molinari, the perkiest damned Reagan Republican ever to appear on the American political stage.  In a 1997 special election, Fossella replaced Molinari, who left the House for a brief-but-perky stint with CBS news, and he was re-elected by comfortable margins to the congressional seat thereafter.  Safely ensconced in Washington, Fossella had a rather undistinguished legislative career, which, apparently, contrasted sharply with the torrid private life that he conducted during his free time.

In the early hours of May 1, Fossella was pulled over by an Alexandria, VA patrolman and arrested for driving while intoxicated.  According to the police report, Fossella, when asked to recite the alphabet from D to T as part of a field sobriety test, responded: “D, E, F, H, G, H, I, J, L.”  Oooh, so close!  The congressman later recorded a 0.17 blood alcohol level, twice the legal limit and good for an automatic five-day stay in the pokey if convicted of driving while intoxicated.

While in the Alexandria lockup waiting for someone to bail him out, Fossella made his one phone call to Laura Fay, a woman who was definitely not Mrs. Fossella (or his sick friend, whom Fossella had reportedly said he was visiting at the time of his arrest, or even his sick daughter, whom Fossella had said he was visiting at the time of his arrest before he changed his story to the one about his sick friend — wait, this gets way more complicated).

When it was discovered that Fay had bailed out Fossella, the gig, as they say on “the Island,” was up.  Not only did Fossella choose Fay to be his “life line” in his own personal game of “Who Wants to be a Lurid Headline in the New York Post,” she turned out to be his mistress and the mother of their three-year old daughter. Yes, Fossella, it turns out, was so pro-family that he had twice as many as most of his constituents. That’s dedication to principle.

Staten Islanders can be forgiving of many personal failings (such as excessive perkiness), but this was too much even for the normally placid Islanders, sitting in their grass shacks and weaving palm fronds into placemats bearing the likeness of Rudy Giuliani. Although he initially vowed to fight for re-election, Fossella quickly saw the writing on the wall (which may or may not have included Laura Fay’s telephone number) and he withdrew from the race. That set the local GOP into a frenzy of inactivity, as it proved absolutely incapable of finding a replacement candidate for the vacant ballot spot. Ultimately, the party decided on Frank Powers, a former Wall Street executive who was inexplicably not of Italian descent.  This move, in turn, led Powers’s son, Francis, to announce that he would run for the office as a Libertarian, all the while insisting, with Oedipal understatement, that “this is not about my dad.”  Meanwhile the elder Powers, deeply moved by the trust reposed in him by the district’s power brokers, showed his appreciation by promptly dying.

Powers’s unauthorized death, which had not been cleared beforehand by party officials, exacerbated a rift between the Staten Island and Brooklyn wings of the local Republican Party. Brooklynites wanted to nominate Paul Atanasio, whose only problem seemed to be that he’s not a Republican. Staten Islanders, in contrast, seemed content to run Powers, whose only problem was that he seemed unwilling to reconsider the whole death thing. Finally, they all settled on former state assemblyman and would-be hot dog magnate Robert Straniere — all, that is, except everyone involved in the deal, it now appears.

Two girls for every guy

Staten Island: Two girls for every guy

Molinari père, for some reason, was not satisfied with Straniere, whom he confidently predicted “could not win.”  He attempted to get Fossella back into the race, but without success.  Fossella, like so many before him, has decided to retire from politics so that he can spend more time with his families.  Now such a rejection would deter any normal man, which only meant that Guy Molinari would not be deterred.  In a bit of still-unexplained skullduggery, Straniere found himself nominated for a judgeship in Manhattan, a post he neither sought nor wanted, but which would have forced him to bow out of the congressional contest if he had accepted the nomination.  Straniere said “thanks but no thanks” to this unexpected gift from the nomination-fairy and pledged to remain in the race for Fossella’s House seat.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Verrazano Narrows, Brooklynites were looking for a replacement of their own.  Paul Atanasio, who was slated to run on the Conservative Party ticket after failing to gain the GOP nod, dropped out of the race after getting his own judicial nomination.  Brooklyn GOPers, still smarting over being treated like a red-headed stepchild by the Staten Island branch of the family, then decided to back Atanasio’s replacement, Timothy Cochrane, a Bay Ridge community activist who apparently hasn’t heard the news that community activists are a bunch of big girls’ blouses.  Meanwhile, Jamshad “Jim” Wyne, who lost the Republican primary to Straniere, decided that the situation wasn’t nearly bizarre enough and announced that he would be mounting a write-in campaign for Fossella’s seat.  In sum, there are enough right-wingers running for the 13th district to constitute an entire third family for Vito Fossella.

While the Republicans were piling up the carnage faster than a production of The Revenger’s Tragedy, the Democrats, without nearly as much drama, picked city councilman Mike McMahon, who drew no opposition in the September primary and  who has a good chance to prevail against the fractured Republican opposition in November. The DNCC has targeted this race, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently gave McMahon his endorsement.  In the meantime, in the months since Fossella’s arrest, the CQPolitics rating for this district went from “Republican safe” to “No clear favorite” to “Democratic favored.”



  1. sozobe  •  Oct 7, 2008 @11:27 am

    Lordy! One is tempted to see parallels (local/ national).

    Lots of yummy one-liners in there. I think “Fossella, like so many before him, has decided to retire from politics so that he can spend more time with his families” was my favorite.

  2. Jerry  •  Oct 7, 2008 @12:26 pm

    I love the caption in the photo, “family man”

  3. annie nominous  •  Oct 7, 2008 @5:00 pm

    McMahon had an opponent in the Democratic primary, 2006 NY 13 cd candidate Steve Harrison, who received a higher percentage of the vote than any of Fossella’s previous opponents, despite raising little money. Instead of being rewarded for his efforts with money fir a second run, McMahon, who was too chicken to challenge Vito, spent a year and a half undermining Harrison’s second attempt at this seat by trying to force feed Coney Island Councilman Domenic Recchia (who doesn’t live in the Congressional district and thus wouldn’t have been able to vote for himself) down the voters throat.

    When Fossella opted out, McMahon jumped in, after draining the Harrison campaign’s bank account fighting Recchia. Then because of some inside baseball stuff, McMahon was able to secure support during the primary from the hypocrites at the DCCC (who refused to help Harrison 06). Harrison with his resources drained couldn’t compete with the DCCC’s money and star power, so McMahon cleaned Harrison’s clock in the primary.

  4. nimh  •  Oct 10, 2008 @7:09 am

    the CQPolitics rating for this district went from “Republican safe” to “No clear favorite” to “Democratic favored”

    … to “We give up, what the fuck is going on there anyway?”.

    This district’s travails this year have definitely been entertaining…

  5. diane  •  Oct 11, 2008 @1:14 pm

    Wow, you managed to write with wit and intelligence about a Skinner box of political maneuvering.

    Keep it coming!

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