The election of a hotheaded former reality TV star as commander in chief has ushered in something of a moment for candidates who’d normally be written off.
Enter Michael Grimm. Or rather, re-enter.
After completing a federal prison term for tax fraud, the former Republican congressman, perhaps best known for threatening to throw a reporter off a Capitol Hill balcony and break him “like a boy,” is hoping to ride a wave of anti-establishment “#MAGA” anger to retake his seat representing New York’s 11th District. And he’s already gathering Donald Trump’s allies to his side.
Former Trump 2016 campaign adviser Michael Caputo told TPM he’s “signed on with great enthusiasm” to serve as Grimm’s communications adviser. Caputo believes Grimm’s the ideal candidate to beat incumbent Rep. Dan Donovan (R-NY), who Caputo cast as one of the anti-Trump Republicans holding the President’s agenda “captive.”
“The stage is pretty well set,” echoed Chris Grant, Grimm’s campaign adviser and a former chief of staff to Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), the first member of Congress to back Trump’s presidential campaign. “You’ve got pro-Trump Republicans on one side, and pro-DC establishment swamp dwellers on the other. We look forward to that battle.”
As tidy as that narrative may be, it’s unclear how much it reflects reality: Donovan is a popular local figure who has voted with Trump some 89 percent of the time. It’s also unclear how much of a role anti-establishment figures like former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon will play—or how much sway those self-styled kingmakers actually have.
Donovan spokeswoman Jessica Proud told TPM she was “not really concerned” with Grimm’s campaign or message, noting that Donovan supports the President on issues like the travel ban and accompanied Trump on Air Force One during a recent trip to Long Island.
“He’s trying to paint himself as this supporter of Trump and the facts just don’t back that up,” Proud said of Grimm. “He was out of prison during the presidential campaign and never came out and said anything in support of the President.”
Grimm, who was known as inmate No. 83479-053 during the seven months he spent at Pennsylvania’s McKean Federal Correctional Institute, was released to house arrest in early May 2016. Even then, he was hinting at a return to politics. Given that the two-term former congressman beat a Democratic challenger while under federal indictment for tax fraud charges in 2014, he told NY1 he planned to “move on” without worrying that his criminal history would dampen voter enthusiasm.
But the troubles associated with his shuttered restaurant Healthalicious, including hiring undocumented immigrants, filing false tax returns and underreporting wages and sales, weren’t the only stain on Grimm’s record. In his years in public life, the former FBI agent had also drawn attention for allegedly drawing a gun on the floor of a Queens nightclub, and for threatening to break an NY1 reporter in half “like a boy” and throw him over a balcony while the network’s cameras were rolling after former President Obama gave a State of the Union address.
Even against that backdrop, Grimm had a smooth reintroduction to the political arena. He formally kicked off his campaign two weeks ago at a raucous Staten Island rally where he fully embraced his checkered past, telling the crowd, “In Washington, nice guys finish last.” He’s been showered with media attention ever since.
Caputo, Grimm’s communications adviser, insisted the campaign’s research shows that voters in Grimm’s district, which includes Staten Island and parts of south Brooklyn, don’t care about his record and like that he’s an “intense guy” who will hoof it to firehouses, senior centers and small businesses to make his case to constituents.
While local GOP insiders told TPM the powerful Staten Island Republican establishment appears to be behind Donovan, Caputo pointed to Grimm’s Wednesday meeting at “Breitbart Embassy,” Bannon’s Washington, D.C. lair, as a sign that his candidate has backers in high places, too. And Donovan has given Grimm an opening on the right with his vote against Republicans’ efforts to repeal Obamacare.
But the hurdles Grimm would have to jump to return to Congress remain high.
It’s unclear exactly how much attention Bannon plans to give to the race since he’s meeting with dozens of candidates, and, even if he goes all in, whether his backing would have a significant impact on the race. Bannon hasn’t yet shown that he’s got big money behind him, and without a serious super-PAC investment it’s unlikely to make much of a different in New York’s 11th Congressional District, one of the costliest media markets in the country.
A source familiar with the conversation between Grimm and Bannon downplayed Wednesday’s pow-wow as just “one meeting” and said Bannon “is supportive” of Grimm, but hadn’t made an official endorsement.
“Steve liked him and that’s pretty much what it is,” the source said.
Bannon’s most potent weapon is his website, Breitbart, which is unlikely to have a major impact in a market where most voters’ news sources are the tabloids and the Staten Island Advance—unless it decides to take a unilateral focus on the race, like it did with the Alabama Senate primary.
There is also the question of Grimm’s own record in Congress. Despite winning in the 2010 Tea Party wave, he left office with a less-than-Trumpian record, having voted in support of a failed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals bill and openly acknowledged that human activity contributes to climate change.
“People want to make this out to be a bit more serious than it is, truthfully,” veteran New York GOP strategist David Catalfamo told TPM of Grimm’s candidacy.
“It’s ironic,” Catalfamo added. “The guy with one of the most liberal records in Congress is going to go primary a guy from the right and go after him for not supporting a President he couldn’t support because he was in jail.”
Gerry O’Brien, another Republican who’s spent 40 years as an activist and consultant for the New York Republican Party, similarly was skeptical that any boost from Trumpworld outsiders could swing the race.
“It’s really going to come down to a clash of personality, a clash of values and a lot of local stuff,” O’Brien said.
Given the heightened rhetoric surrounding the race just two weeks after Grimm’s entrance, those clashes seem all but certain to come.
The above photo illustration was created by Christine Frapech.