NEW YORK (AP) — Staten Island, the least-populous and most Republican-leaning of New York City’s five boroughs, is sometimes referred to as the city’s “forgotten borough.” It’s the only one not linked to the deep-blue metropolis by subway lines and is politically out-of-step enough that its residents have threatened secession.
The enclave sometimes known for a defiant stance against the city’s liberal politics is also where a former Republican congressman — with the full-throated endorsement of former President Donald Trump — is trying to return to elected office more than a decade after a personal scandal derailed his political career.
Former U.S. Rep. Vito Fossella, who left Congress in 2009, is considered a favorite in Tuesday’s competitive election for the largely ceremonial public office of Staten Island Borough President, which the GOP has held for four decades. But it’s unclear to what extent Fossella’s past will play a role.
Fossella faces a challenge from Mark. S. Murphy, a centrist Democrat businessman who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2012, and Conservative Party candidate Leticia Remauro, who could peel off some voters from Fossella on the right.
After a drunken driving arrest in 2008 led to revelations he had a secret, second family in Virginia, Fossella opted not to run for reelection. But the bad headlines from a dozen years ago may have a limited impact in the race, especially in a place where Trump’s power is potent.
Fossella had a wife and three children living on Staten Island at the time of his 2008 arrest in Virginia. Fossella told officers he was going to see his sick daughter. The woman he had a secret relationship with, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel who worked for a time as a liaison to Congress, bailed him out of jail.
At the time, he was the only GOP member in Congress from New York City and was a social conservative who represented a largely Catholic district. When the revelations about his second family emerged, Fossella finished his term but opted not to seek another term.
Fossella has said he’s worked to repair his personal relationships since he left office and that he felt compelled to mount a comeback after seeing rising crime, a shift in attitudes toward policing and the impact of the city’s pandemic policies on small businesses and restaurants.
“I saw this in the early ’90s when we ran then, helped to turn the city around. And I see it happening again so I feel that the only way to really do it is to step back into the arena and try to make a positive difference for the people of Staten Island,” Fossella told The Associated Press in an interview.
The ex-congressman is hoping to draw on the other parts of his reputation, such as his work as a city councilman to close Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill, the world’s largest garbage dump, his work to get another bus depot on the island and his work with Democrats while in Congress as a prominent advocate for the families of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, including many Staten Island residents.
“I’d like to think people will see that record of achievement and say, ‘We want to hire this guy,'” Fossella said.
He also points to endorsements he’s earned from the borough’s only daily newspaper and from Rudy Giuliani, the former Trump lawyer and New York City Republican mayor.
And then there’s the backing from Trump himself, which helped power Fossella through a primary this summer. The former president, who won Staten Island during the 2016 and 2020 elections, issued a statement on Wednesday again expressing his “complete and total endorsement” of Fossella, declaring, “He will not disappoint you!”
“Vito is the only true conservative Republican in the race who will stand up to the radical liberal mob. I have been a proud supporter of Vito Fossella because he is strong, tough, and loves the incredible people of Staten Island,” Trump said in the statement.
Trump’s backing may draw more Republicans out to vote in Tuesday’s municipal election, where Democrat Eric Adams is expected to cruise to victory in the New York City mayoral election. It could also blunt the ability of Murphy and Remauro to pick off some voters from Fossella.
Trump’s presence is also a reminder that personal scandals, like the kind that blunted Fossella’s political rise, may not not be such a hindrance this time around.
Twice-divorced Trump, despite his allegations of extramarital affairs, remains wildly popular in the GOP and popular on Staten Island, where registered Democrats rank among his supporters, Flanagan said.
“I think the way Trump has transformed the party, is he’s taken off the table a lot of these morality questions for Republican voters,” Flangan said. “He really rechristened the party as a libertine party, and I don’t I don’t think any of that personal stuff registers anymore.”
Murphy, the son of former U.S. Rep. John M. (Jack) Murphy, has not raised the issue of Fossella’s past on the campaign trail and declined to comment on it in an interview with the AP.
He said the presence of a Republican candidate and a Conservative candidate in the race gives him a shot on Tuesday and voters in the borough will support the candidate that will work hardest for them, not someone who votes with their party. Murphy said he can instead draw on his relationships with Adams and other Democrats to tackle quality-of-life issues for Staten Islanders.
“It’s about having a seat at the table — and somebody who is aligned with negative national political figures or negative national political ideals, like my two opponents, they’re not going to have the seat at the table,” Murphy said. “They’re essentially going to be an outlier in the wilderness of Staten Island, and I want to make sure that we are not that.”