Primary bid from former Rep. Michael Grimm is expected to get cool reception from some in his party
By Kristina Peterson April 28, 2019 10:00 a.m. ET
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y.—Former GOP Rep. Michael Grimm knows party leaders will be rooting for Nicole Malliotakis in the race to take back the Staten Island-based district Republicans lost last fall. He is likely running anyway—setting up a messy, expensive primary fight.
“I’m not surprised at all that they would pick her because she’s a double winner for them—a Latina female. That’s what they want for the sake of being able to say ‘look how many women we’re supporting,’” Mr. Grimm said in an interview this week. “The fact that she can’t win is not as important.”
Ms. Malliotakis, a state assemblywoman, has drawn donations and support from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) and a bevy of House GOP women in her bid to oust the new Democratic incumbent, Rep. Max Rose. The general election is likely to be a tight one, but Republicans see it as one of their best opportunities to flip a Democratic-held seat and elect more women—which they vowed to do after the 2018 election left the House with nearly seven times as many Democratic women as GOP women.
“Based on my history in this district, I’m the best bet we have to take back this seat,” Ms. Malliotakis said.
The daughter of Cuban and Greek immigrants, Ms. Malliotakis, 38 years old, has represented parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn since she was first elected to the state assembly in 2010. President Trump carried the congressional district by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016.
In 2017, she challenged New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and lost citywide, but won 70% of the vote in Staten Island. In the first quarter of this year, she raised more money than any other House GOP challenger, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
After midterm elections in which more than 100 GOP female candidates ran for House seats but only one new House GOP woman was elected, Republican officials vowed to help more women win their primaries next year.
Mr. Grimm said he hasn’t made a final decision but was “lining things up” for a possible run. His potential entry isn’t viewed as helpful by members of the state’s GOP delegation.
“Michael Grimm, that would be a death sentence for the Republican Party in Staten Island,” said Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) “He can definitely create real problems for Republicans” since he would “divide the party and weaken our candidate going into November.”
Mr. Grimm, who is 49, was re-elected to a third term in 2014 while under federal indictment, but resigned the following January after pleading guilty to a tax-evasion charge. He admitted to under-reporting income from his restaurant, Healthalicious, between 2007 and 2010, before he entered Congress, and to paying workers off the books.
Many Staten Island Republicans believe he was unfairly targeted by the federal government.
“He had a raw deal. There wasn’t nothing he did that was bad,” said William Guli, a retired construction worker who said he also approved of Ms. Malliotakis. “I love the both of them, but I would lean toward Grimm.”
Others said Mr. Grimm’s past would be a problem for him.
“Too many issues, that guy,” said Jack Cashman, a GOP Staten Island resident and retired security officer, who planned to vote for Ms. Malliotakis. “I don’t like his attitude.”
New York City Councilman Joe Borelli is running for public advocate in a special election this year but is considered a possible GOP congressional candidate as well.
Mr. Grimm in April met in the Capitol with Mr. McCarthy, whose political action committee has donated the maximum $10,000 to Ms. Malliotakis. During the meeting, Mr. McCarthy noted Ms. Malliotakis’s strength in Staten Island in the mayoral race, Mr. Grimm said.
“I said, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how she’s fooling people like you who have no clue about New York City,’ ” Mr. Grimm recounted. “To use Nancy Pelosi’s [expression], you could run a glass of water against DeBlasio and get 70%.”
Mrs. Pelosi has said a glass of water labeled Democratic could win in some overwhelmingly liberal districts including her own.
Mr. Grimm ran in 2018 against the Republican incumbent, Rep. Dan Donovan. Mr. Donovan won the primary after being endorsed by Mr. Trump but went on to lose to Mr. Rose.
Now, Mr. Grimm is depicting himself as a more-reliable Trump ally than Ms. Malliotakis, who had been the New York state chairwoman of Sen. Marco Rubio’s unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign. She has criticized some of Mr. Trump’s policies, including restrictions on the ability of transgender people to serve in the armed forces and the president’s early travel ban.
Although she said she agrees with most of Mr. Trump’s stances, “I never have and never will be a rubber stamp for anyone,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Malliotakis noted she spoke with the president in a call facilitated by Mr. McCarthy in January. “It was very encouraging, so much so that I filed to run a week after,” she said.
If Ms. Malliotakis wins the primary, unseating Mr. Rose won’t be easy. He was one of the top 10 first-quarter fundraisers in the class of 59 freshman Democrats.
Mr. Rose said he expected the GOP primary to become competitive.
“What’s fascinating about it is that they are each racing down to Washington, D.C., to seek D.C.’s approval,” he said.
—Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.
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