Fossella Seems Safe for Now

Posted May 2, 2008 at 5:36pm

For the past three election cycles, Democrats have made noises about targeting Rep. Vito Fossella, the lone Republican in New York City’s Congressional delegation. But the talk never amounted to action, and while Fossella’s margins of victory have shrunk since 2002, when he topped out at 70 percent, he has never had to sweat re-election much.

Now, after Fossella’s drunken- driving arrest in Virginia last week, will the political equation in his Staten Island-Brooklyn district change?

Democrats are probably hoping so. This cycle, they are more optimistic about ousting Fossella than they have been in the past.

“Even before recent events we were targeting this race,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “The district is trending Democratic, we anticipate high Democratic turnout due to the presidential election, and Fossella’s ties to George Bush are a huge liability with New Yorkers.”

But Staten Island is an anomaly in New York City. It’s an insular, conservative place where the voters’ politics defy the city’s far-left reputation. Although Democrats have a solid edge in voter enrollment, Republicans have controlled the Congressional seat that Fossella now holds for the past quarter-century.

And Fossella has proved to be personally popular in his six terms. He is a young Congressman (43) who comes off like the boy next door — and that could inoculate him from any major political fallout from his DWI arrest.

“He’s got a huge base of support here in the community,” said former Rep. Guy Molinari (R-N.Y.), who held Fossella’s seat in the 1980s and remains a political powerhouse on Staten Island. “This is not going to hurt him in political terms.”

Molinari conceded, however, that Democrats are likely to intensify their efforts to defeat Fossella following his arrest.

The drunken-driving charges are serious, even if they’re not politically perilous.

According to police and court records, Fossella was arrested in Alexandria, Va., between midnight and 2 a.m. Thursday and had a blood alcohol level of 0.17 — more than twice the legal limit for the presumption of drunkenness in Virginia.

Although the offense is a misdemeanor, Fossella will have to serve a mandatory five days in jail if he is found guilty. He is scheduled to appear in court on May 12 to answer the charges.

In a statement released late Thursday, and at a news conference at a Staten Island hotel Friday, Fossella expressed remorse for what he had done.

“I’m grown up and man enough to know that I made a mistake,” he said.

But besides disclosing that he was pulled over by police after he attended a celebration for New Yorkers who had traveled to Washington, D.C., to see the Super Bowl champion New York Giants feted by President Bush at the White House, Fossella refused to say more about his arrest — or whether he would contest the charges.

He said he did not intend to resign, and a spokesman said late Friday that the Congressman still plans to seek re-election.

Most Democrats have been hesitant to speak publicly about Fossella’s arrest, figuring it will take time to gauge whether the Congressman’s political position erodes. A notable exception was lawyer Stephen Harrison, Fossella’s challenger in 2006 who is seeking the Democratic nomination again this year.

In a statement, Harrison, without mentioning Fossella by name, called drunken driving “irresponsible and illegal,” and he noted that he had attended a lunch for Mothers Against Drunk Driving only two days before the Congressman’s arrest.

“As elected officials and potential elected officials we have an obligation to set an example for society,” Harrison said in his statement. “Lawmakers cannot expect the people to follow the laws if they themselves disregard them.”

But Harrison is not the choice of the Democratic establishment for taking on Fossella this fall. Although Harrison got 43 percent of the vote in the previous cycle despite being outspent more than 12-1 and has been endorsed by a smattering of liberal national and local groups, most party leaders have coalesced around New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia (D), who at press time Friday remained silent on Fossella’s DWI.

Recchia finished March with more cash on hand than Fossella: $325,000 to $248,000. Harrison ended the period with $91,000 in the bank.

Some Democrats see Fossella’s sluggish fundraising as a sign that he didn’t have his heart in a re-election race to begin with. Fossella has openly contemplated running for mayor of New York in the past.

Although national Democrats say Recchia has a good profile for the 13th district — both ethnically and in political temperament — he, like Harrison, comes from South Brooklyn, and that is significant when the majority of voters are in Staten Island.

“We’re kind of parochial about that kind of stuff,” Molinari said.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Fossella’s arrest will trigger some activity in the House ethics committee. The ethics committee is not required to launch an independent investigation, and he will not have to give up his committee assignments. However, the committee must within 30 days after he’s formally charged convene a subcommittee investigation or issue a written explanation of why it has chosen not to do so.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.