The Impact of Staten Island Resident Eric Gardner’s Death on the NY-11 Special Election

The new 114th Congress will commence tomorrow with already one vacant seat in the House of Representatives headed to special election.

Despite Rep. Michael Grimm (R) saying he would not resign his US House seat after pleading guilty to one count of tax evasion in December, the man who scored a resounding 53-41 percent re-election victory only a month earlier in the face of a 20-count federal indictment will officially leave Congress.

That means New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) will call a special election once the seat in the new Congress officially becomes vacant, which will occur during the body’s first session on Jan. 6th. Under New York election law, the governor must schedule the election between 70 and 80 days from the date of official vacancy. This means the special will occur sometime between March 16 and 26, 2015. The most likely prospects are Tuesday, March 17, and Tuesday, the 24th.

Also under New York election procedure, the local political parties will choose their respective nominee, meaning there will only be one election before the voting public. For a time, it looked like former three-term Staten Island Borough president James Molinaro might enter the race as a Conservative Party candidate, but the 83-year-old former local political leader is confirming he will not do so. Having a Conservative Party nominee would clearly weaken Republican prospects of holding the seat.

At this point, the leading Republican and Democratic contenders are Richmond County District Attorney Dan Donovan for the Republicans, and six-term Democratic state Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Staten Island).

Also mentioned as potential candidates are Republican Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis (R/Staten Island/Brooklyn) and state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Great Kills, Staten Island). Former Rep. Vito Fossella (R-NY-13) says he is not interested in seeking his former position.

On the Democratic side, in addition to Assemblyman Cusick, former one-term Rep. Mike McMahon (D-NY-13) is being mentioned as a possible candidate. McMahon won the seat when Fossella imploded in personal scandal but lost to Grimm two years later in the GOP landslide of 2010. He’s expressing some interest in running but is reportedly a secondary choice to Cusick among the Democratic Party leaders. McMahon expressed interest in running for his former seat both in 2012 and 2014, but took no discernible action in constructing a campaign either time. Hence, his habitual inactivity is another reason as to why the party leaders are apparently looking elsewhere.

The 11th District encompasses all of Staten Island, which represents approximately two-thirds of the voting base, and part of Brooklyn. Grimm used his Staten Island roots as a key asset in turning back former New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia (D-Brooklyn) despite his legal woes. Therefore, it is highly probable that both major parties will nominate Staten Island-anchored candidates for this special election campaign.

Though the district appears swing in nature (President Obama carried the seat 52-47 percent in 2012 after Sen. John McCain scored a 51-48 percent victory in 2008), the region typically proves itself as the lone Republican congressional district within New York City. But, should the GOP nominate Donovan, the current national news story that is engulfing the city could give the Democrats an extra push.

As District Attorney of Richmond County, Donovan found himself at the center of the Eric Garner controversy. Garner was the Staten Island resident who was killed at the hands of police while illegally selling single cigarettes. Donovan took the case to a Staten Island grand jury that failed to return an indictment against police officer Daniel Pantaleo.

With tempers flaring in the racially charged episode, and the police and Mayor Bill de Blasio directly at odds, it is feasible that this issue could play a role in the congressional campaign especially considering Donovan’s prominent legal position. Though the district is only 7.8 percent African American, the issue of an overbearing police force, especially with the omnipresent video of the altercation between Pantaleo and Garner that directly led to the latter’s death being such a major factor, the issue could have a tangential effect upon the outcome.

Considering Grimm’s strong re-election victory, and the Republican voting history in this Staten Island-based CD, the GOP begins the special election as the favorites to hold the seat. Thus, the first campaign of the new 2016 election cycle is already upon us.

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