A special election to replace a controversial former New York City congressman could have national implications for the Republican Party.
Both activists and Republican operatives say the likely frontrunner to run on the GOP line could cause widespread protests that would do lasting damage to the party’s attempts to diversify its brand.
At the same time, another candidate who one GOP insider suggested could be a “face” of the party’s future seems to be falling out of the race due to what some have described as a “boy’s club” and another called “petty” local politics.
Michael Grimm’s decision to resign after pleading guilty to a tax fraud charge late last month means there will be a special election in his district, which includes the borough Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn. This means local GOP leaders will pick the candidate who will run on each party line in an election that will be held on a date specified by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
Multiple local officials have said Republican leadership in the district is eager to back Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan.
Though he seems to have the support of local GOP officials, civil rights groups are set to stage protests if Donovan runs for the seat due to his role in a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer in the apparent chokehold death of an unarmed black man named Eric Garner on Staten Island last summer. Both activists and Republican insiders say these demonstrations could have a devastating effect on the rebranding effort aimed at reaching out to a more diverse selection of voters that the party launched after losing the 2012 presidential election.
Kirsten John Foy is the northeast regional director of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, a civil rights group that has led many of the protests in the wake of Garner’s death and other killings of unarmed African American men by police officers in recent months. In an interview with Business Insider last week, Foy said he thought Donovan was “losing his mind” for thinking he should run.
“You have a GOP that’s trying to position itself as a friend to communities of colour and you’re going to have the nemesis of justice run under your banner?” Foy said of Donovan.
Though he said there have been no “formal meetings” yet, Foy predicted activists would stage protests against Donovan throughout the campaign if he is chosen to run.
“The sentiment among the entire activist and civil rights community and the sent among the core of the Democratic Party is that we cannot allow this man to take his values to Washington to represent New York City,” said Foy.
Garner died after being taken into custody for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Video footage of the incident showed officer Daniel Pantaleo seeming to put Garner in a chokehold, a practice that has been banned by the New York City Police Department. After the grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, Donovan’s handling of the prosecution was widely criticised.
Foy echoed this critique when asked about Donovan mounting a congressional bid.
“You can rest assured that civil rights groups and others are not going to sit back and allow Dan Donovan to redefine himself as the capable public servant he has proven himself not to be,” said Foy.
Donovan has repeatedly said he can’t discuss details of the grand jury investigation. His office also declined to comment on this story.
Weeks of civil rights protests against a GOP candidate would hardly help the party’s rebranding and minority outreach efforts. A Republican operative who talked to Business Insider last week said the special election would become “the Garner race” if the local party officials tap Donovan to run.
“The party has made tremendous inroads, I think, in reaching out to minority communities, non-white communities, however you want to classify them. The jury’s still out on its effectiveness, but they have made a conscious effort to go do that,” the operative said. “And the minute we put Dan Donovan up there, because he happened to be the D.A. in the Garner case, that becomes the only issue in this race.”
And the operative said they expect the race would be a high profile one due to the fact it is occurring outside of a normal election cycle and Staten Island’s proximity to “the number one media market in the world.”
“Every special has national visibility,” they explained. “Every reporter who wants to cover this race, those that aren’t in New York are an Amtrak ride to Manhattan. … They take a subway and a ferry ride and they’re on the island. Everyone’s going to cover this race.”
While Donovan’s ties to the Garner case would likely earn him opposition from activists, the Washington Republican suggested this could actually help him in the conservative confines of Staten Island and southern Brooklyn.
“If Al Sharpton wants to weigh in, it would help Donovan,” they said. “He can say, ‘I’m not just running against the democrat, ‘I’m running against Sharpton, Bill de Blasio, and Nancy Pelosi.'”
At the same time, Donovan’s association to the controversy over Garner’s death could cause problems for Republicans beyond the borders of Grimm’s old district.
The operative suggested a Donovan campaign could cause problems for the Republican leadership that just took control of Congress.
“If you’re worried about what you’re doing in the next three months in the House and the Senate and your agenda gets taken away because of a big protest in the Garner race … what does that do to your national message?” said the operative.
The operative also suggested the controversy for Donovan would make it hard for other Republicans or the party’s campaign committees to support him.
“Every House member that writes a check to Danny Donovan is going to have to answer to their local papers. ‘Why did you do this? And, ‘Where are you on the Garner case?'” they said. “Many of these guys haven’t had to speak up on this yet.”
Foy also predicted Donovan would be a tempting target for those looking to attack the GOP.
“Democrats will eat this alive,” he said.
Foy also said he believes the impact of a Donovan victory could extend beyond this year and into the 2016 presidential campaign.
“I will tell you who I think is going to love the idea of Dan Donovan representing Staten Island in Congress; Hillary Clinton,” said Foy, later adding, “We will have a DNC that will love to have a right wing guy like Dan Donovan in Congress that they can just beat up in every community of colour across this nation. Eric Garner is a household name … and you were the guy who made him a household name. If Pantaleo had gotten indicted, you would not have the kind of energized movement that you have.”
Multiple sources who spoke to Business Insider also argued selecting Donovan would mean local Republican officials would actually be blocking a candidate who could help the party’s national rebranding effort.
Nicole Malliotakis is a 34-year-old Republican state assemblywoman who has said she’s “taking a serious look” at launching a campaign. Her relative youth, Latina heritage, and gender make Malliotakis exactly the type of recruit the party’s national leadership has tried to court as part of its diversification efforts.
“From a branding perspective, Malliotakis would be a dream candidate,” one Washington Republican told Business Insider last week.
However, multiple local politicos have said Malliotakis has a strained relationship with the local Republican Party leaders in the district who favour Donovan.
The GOP operative said Donovan might have an “easier time” winning the special election than Malliotakis because he already represents all of Staten Island while her Assembly district just covers a portion. Still, they suggested picking Donovan would be an unnecessary risk for the local party in a district that traditionally leans Republican.
“Nicole could win this race and Donovan can win this race,” they said. “But why would you want to make the Garner issue front and center on this race?”
However, the operative acknowledged tensions between Malliotakis and local Republican officials that could prevent her from being their pick.
“You have … a potential up and comer in the party who is just being whisked aside right now,” said the operative. “You look, she’s the daughter of a Cuban exile. … The party doesn’t have enough women. Well, here’s a woman. A Spanish, woman, Republican, conservative. She’s pro-life. What’s the matter here? … She’s just not being looked at because of the local petty politics.”
One local Democrat who discussed the special election with Business Insider suggested the poor relationship between Malliotakis and the Staten Island Republican Party is due to the fact the local GOP leadership is a “boy’s club.” The Republican operative argued it is more an issue of local party officials being unwilling to back an outsider who hasn’t “put in her time.”
“You’re talking about a bunch of guys sitting around and they see a young woman who’s an up and comer and she’s the only woman. It becomes a question of, ‘Gee, is she going to do something we don’t agree with? Can we control her? Has she put in her time yet?'” the operative said. “I think one of the biggest things they’re saying about Danny Donovan is that it’s his turn.”
The operative argued this type of thinking has contributed to the GOP’s past lack of diversity.
“We have a long history of who’s turn it’s been and they have not been the best person for the job,” they said. “If it was her turn, they’d be happy with it. I think that’s part of the challenge. How do you diversify a party, how do you build up the rank and file when there aren’t people running that aren’t just white guys. How do you bring people into this party if all you put out is white guys?”
While they agreed early chatter and coverage makes it seem like Donovan will get the nod from the local leaders, the Washington Republican suggested the situation could change. Specifically they said the local GOP be influenced by looking at the positive reaction to the party’s most recent crop of freshmen on Capitol Hill, which includes, Elise Stefanik, the youngest woman to serve in Congress and the first black female member of the House Republican conference.
“The early sort of press has gone to Donovan and I think there’s definitely room for kind of a, ‘Hey, wait a minute. The Republicans kind of came from an election where they had these great candidates and this one sort of fits the mould,” they said of Malliotakis.
If she is selected by the local party leadership, the Washington Republican predicted Malliotakis could be a major part of the GOP’s brand going forward.
“She could join Elise Stefanik as the face of, not just the New York delegation, but as the face of the House Republicans.”
For her part, Malliotakis simply told Business Insider she believes her experience representing an Assembly district that covers both Staten Island and Brooklyn makes her uniquely qualified for a seat that includes both boroughs.
“I think being a representative of Brooklyn and Staten Island, I have a unique perspective of the needs and concerns of all sides of the district,” she said.
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