Staten Island: Toward a New Normal

Home Politics Staten Island: Toward a New Normal

Storms and politics aside, the borough is changing.

Michael Grimm, Congressman for Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

When you walk around in Staten Island in normal times, you could be just about anywhere in America. Anywhere, that is, except New York. In this part of the city— 25 minutes away from Manhattan by ferry—the Borough President is Republican, the majority of people own their homes, and it is possible to walk along 35 miles of greenbelt without seeing a car.

In a sea of blue votes, Staten Island is an archipelago of red. And not any old shade of red, but Tea Party red.

These are not normal times, of course.  Hurricane Sandy’s 80 mph winds were violent beyond expectation. When the hurricane hit on Monday, she flattened homes, flooded businesses and killed. In some of the worst-hit areas, doors lie on the ground with nothing left to open and a thick stench of rot pulls at you. With the death toll currently at 19 and swathes of the shoreline and neighborhoods eviscerated, Sandy left behind a visibly altered island.

In subtler ways—less violent and far less tragic ways—meanwhile, Staten Island was already changing, and politics is one prism through which to see those changes. With the devastation of the storm in the forefront, politics recedes to the background, of course. But only so far to the background. Ready or not, election day is tomorrow.

Staten Island’s current Congressman is Republican Mike Grimm, a former marine and FBI agent. Grimm rode the Tea Party wave in 2010 and his race for re-election, he is currently twenty two points ahead in the polls. That Grimm’s a popular Republican candidate in a Democratic city is one thing. That Grimm’s a popular Republican candidate in a Democratic city who also happens to be under investigation for illegally fund-raising for his 2010 election campaign, and who has a number of questionable associates, is another.

So why, despite the scandal (more on this below), is Grimm still in the race? For one thing, he’s a politician attuned to the needs of his constituents. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he’s been wading through water, visiting residents and organizing relief drives.

But there are other factors in Grimm’s whopping lead. Grimm is a conservative, and Staten Island has long been considered a conservative bastion. But why? Did Staten Island just happen to inherit the Republican gene, while its four brothers developed a liberal bent. Because if you look closer, things aren’t entirely what they seem. Staten Island has the fastest growing immigrant population in New York City. There’s also Diane Savino, Democratic Senator for the North Shore and South Brooklyn, and Democratic Councilwoman Debi Rose, the first African-American elected official in Staten Island. So what is Staten Island? Bastion of conservatism, misunderstood or a contradiction?

It’s a Sunday, and the New Life Church is celebrating its 15th anniversary. Of Staten Island’s many churches, this one pops and fizzes. Women wear giant headdresses twisted into knots, their clothes the color of hard candy. The choir’s hymn spills into jazzy beats and the reverb moves the floorboards. Among the guests there are many well-dressed, well-behaved and tightly held babies.

The church is central to Staten Island’s Liberian Community. When Telee Brown left Liberia’s Bomi County eleven years ago, the church offered spiritual solace as well as practical advice on on how to adjust to the American way.

True to the ebb and flow of immigrant communities, Brown, a refugee from Liberia’s civil war, went to Staten Island because he could trace it to a piece of home. Once the first Liberians had trickled in, others followed and today, there are about 10,000 Liberians in Staten Island, although the exact number is hard to gauge, because of the number of undocumented immigrants.   

Brown vouches for the borough. He talks of receptive authorities, access to education and the availability of government services. Although Brown’s community faces challenges—these range from overcoming the trauma of war, to its children lagging behind in the classroom—Brown has a particular perspective. ‘The challenges you find here are not insurmountable like the ones you have at home, where there’s no adequate food, no adequate schools, no adequate lodging,” says Brown.

When I ask Telee Brown if he thinks Liberians will stay in Staten Islands he gives an emphatic “yes, yes.” He is holding the reason in his arms, his baby daughter. “She’s an American,” he says.

The size and scope of the Liberian community isn’t a freakish anomaly. Staten Island is also home to the third largest community of migrant Sri Lankans, as well as Albanian, Pakistani, Chinese and Mexican communities, to name but a few. In fact, between 1990 and 2010 the number of foreign-born residents in Staten Island jumped from 12 to 20 percent of the population.

But perhaps the most indicative statistic for the future of Staten Island is this one: In 2010 almost half of Staten Islanders under the age of 18 were white non-Hispanic, compared with 73 percent in 1990. Immigration, far from being the exception to the rule, looks gradually like it is the rule.

Christopher Mulé is a folkorist by training. A multi-generational New Yorker, he moved to Staten Island three years ago and works with immigrant groups to maintain their distinct cultural heritage. Mulé points to an interesting paradox. Its outlook is largely conservative. But its increasing diversity and working class roots remind him of the New York City of his grandparents. “I’m just coming from the perspective that if I were to bring my grandmother to Manhattan. I don’t think she’d recognize the wealth that exists there,” he says. So rather than being the anti-New York City, in certain ways Staten Island is more like the old New York City of immigrants and Ellis Island.

One question is, when will this diversity will show up in the polls? A lot of the immigrants Mulé works with don’t have the right to vote because they are either undocumented or seeking citizenship. Until they do, Staten Island’s politics will not reflect its changing population.

And Staten Island is largely conservative. Grimm won his congressional seat in 2010 by a margin of 3% against Democrat Michael McMahon. Back then, Grimm had the backing of Guy Molinari, the Staten Island power broker and former Borough President, as well as the Island’s Tea Party movement. But even his rival McMahon was a fairly cautious Democrat, voting against Obama’s landmark 2010 bill to reform the health care system, for example.

This time around Grimm is running for the redrawn Congressional district NY-11—which includes Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn including Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst. The latest poll puts Michael Grimm miles ahead of his Democratic challenger, Mark Murphy. This could party be because challenger Murphy has struggled to increase his visibility among voters.

A fourth generation Staten Islander, Murphy spent 18 years in California, including a stint as a Hollywood actor and producer. He then embarked on a career in real estate, before moving back to the Island in 2009. The Grimm campaign has been taking swipes at Murphy, branding him a failed actor.

But slights about Murphy’s acting career, don’t seem to be on a par with criminal investigations. Grimm’s lead is surprising, considering the number of allegations that surround him. First, the US attorney’s office in Brooklyn is looking into whether Grimm, and one of the key fundraisers for his 2010 campaign, Ofer Biton, illegally raised money that exceeded donation limits or came from non-US citizens.

Then there’s Grimm’s unsavory cast of business acquaintances. Biton for one, stands accused of immigration fraud and embezzling millions from a Rabbi’s congregation. There’s also Bennett Orfaly, with whom Grimm opened up a restaurant in the Upper East Side. According to federal prosecutors, Orfaly has links to the Gambino crime family. Grimm also did business with Carlos Luquis and his wife. Luquis, an ex-FBI agent and former manager of a Texas electricity company, Ercot, spent 18 months in prison for his part in a ring that stole $2 million from customers.

Grimm’s slim degrees of separation from these crimes, seems to have done little to dull his appeal, in a borough that seems inclined to the right. A 2006 report into Staten Islanders’ ideological outlook by the Center for the Study of Staten Island had 38 percent of Staten Islanders calling themselves “conservative,” in comparison with 26 percent of New Yorkers.

But this doesn’t contradict or undermine the emerging diversity in the northern part of the Island. Staten Island, it seems, has a Mason Dixie Line all of its own.

Richard Flanagan is an expert in Staten Island politics and co-author of Staten Island: Conservative Bastion in a Liberal City. He divides the Island into its three regions. The North Shore leans Democrat and its racial diversity and demographics look like the rest of New York City. The 2006 report by the Center for the Study of Staten Island saw 33 percent of respondents from the North Shore refer to themselves liberal. The middle of the island notched up the most moderates, at 34 percent.

The South Shore, meanwhile, is more solidly Republican and resembles middle-America. This is where Grimm’s strongest support comes from. The same 2006 report saw 46% of respondents from the South Shore refer to themselves as conservative. That, Flanagan write, makes it “overwhelmingly conservative.”

Politics between the North and South Shores became more distinct after the Verrazano Bridge was built in 1964. The Verrazano is the only overland link between Staten Island and the rest of New York City. It runs between Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth and Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge. Since its construction, the Island’s population has nearly doubled.

Italians were the biggest community to come to the Island after the Verrazano was built. Urban sociologist Jerome Krase has written a book about Staten Island’s Italian community. He describes an almost wholesale transplant of the Italian American population from places like Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, over a 20-30 year period.

Staten Island had seen its first wave of Italian immigrant in the late 1800s. These Italians tended to come from Northern Italy and were reasonably successful businessmen. Famous residents include the father of Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who spent four years hiding on the Island, and the overlooked inventor of the telephone, Antonio Meucci

According to Krase, the wave of Italians who came after the Verrazano was built were mostly working class, blue collar and city workers. The post-Verrazano Italians bolster the number of Catholic schools and churches on the island. Today, Italians represent the largest ethnic group on the Island, with almost 32 percent giving declaring Italian ancestry.

Richard Flanagan reasons that after the bridge, ethnic voting does become more defined, in the sense that new migrants wanted to live within their own communities, and created voting blocs. He points out that a lot of Irish-American leaders of the Democratic party came from Westerleigh on the North Shore. By contrast, the Republican leadership came from the South Shore where a lot of Italians had settled.

But an automatic connection between ethnicity and conservatism is a facile one. To further complicate the picture, Italians of Staten Island aren’t typical conservatives either. In fact, many are registered Democrats. In mid-2009, 127,000 Staten Islanders had registered Democrat compared to 82,000 Republicans. Which explains why Grimm fought a reasonably close race in 2010 with the moderate-Democrat Michael McMahon.

Krase points out that this group of Italian-Americans tend to be in favor of government spending, especially for employment, but socially conservative when it came to issues like abortion. In his view, the Italians of Staten Island aren’t as conservative as their voting record suggests. He predicts Sataten Island will carry for Republican Mitt Romney for President, but not overwhelmingly.

Krase adds that Staten Island has been a conservative borough, whether it’s elected a Republican or a Democrat. The Jewish population is a case in point. He describes Staten Island’s Jews as “more middle of the road,” adding that “it’s not the very liberal Jewish population that was in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s.”

It’s unlikely that new residents just pick up Staten Island’s conservatism by osmosis. So what is it about Staten Island?

Perhaps geography is destiny. Islands have a reputation for insularity and that might be part of Staten Island’s appeal. This is especially true during the de-industrialization and white flight of the 1960s and 1970s, says Joseph Sciorra, Associate Director of Queen’s College’s Italian American Institute. Sciorra explains that Staten Island’s “whiteness” and its distance from the inner city were part of the island’s draw. As older inner city, immigrant communities saw “people of color moving into their neighborhood” they “lay all the fault with these people of color,” says Sciorra. And those who had moved incrementally up the economic ladder went to places like Astoria, Queens, Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, and Staten Island. “It was perceived as further away from the inner city and from African-Americans,” he says.

Sciorra explains that at the time, New York City’s Lindsay administration had cut back services in swathes of New York City, and banks took out their marker pens, drew red lines and refused to lend money in neglected areas. Which begat even more neglect.

And Staten Island is definitely harder to get to than the other four boroughs. Although the sland has been part of New York City since 1898, the city never went out of its way to bring Staten Island into the mass transit fold. Islanders can take a ferry between the Staten Island’s North Shore and the southern tip of Manhattan. Depending on when you take it, the ferry either feels like rush-hour-on-sea, a bargain basement tour to the Statue of Liberty or both. The New York that buzzes with yellow cabs, subways and manholes gets quieter the longer you stay on the ferry, until it eventually gets left behind.

The only overland link between Staten Island and the rest of New York City is the Verrazano. It can cost Staten Islanders up to $13 for the privilege of driving across it. This makes for an expensive habit in a car culture bedroom community. Councilwoman Debi Rose, from the North Shore, laments that “we’re the borough that really has the least amount of connections.” In terms of the modern-day commute to Manhattan, it isn’t quite hell, but it is a costly and inefficient form of purgatory.

Grimm’s supporters are largely in the suburban South Shore, where people tend to own their property rather than rent. In fact, around two-thirds of people on Staten Island own their own homes, as opposed to one-third in the other boroughs which could account for how they vote.

Lori Weintrob has spent 17 years as a professor at Staten Island’s Wagner College. During that time, she’s been leading a three-borough life—for 11 years she commuted from Park Slope Brooklyn, her daughter goes to school in Manhattan, and her parents still live in Kings County. A relatively recent homeowner herself, she observes that for many people  “with home ownership comes all kinds of shifting alliances and issues about taxes and so on.”

In the wake of Sandy Grimm and his rival Mark Murphy, have put campaigning and politicking aside. A television debate planned for last week was cancelled and Sandy’s made the logistics of voting hard. Two polling sites are out of order and with about 113,000 homes without power, Richard Flanagan predicts that turnout will be low. Flanagan also observes that Obama’s response post-Sandy as a has increased his stature and “belies Romney’s claim that the federal government doesn’t work well.” Which could increase his share of the vote.  He also makes the point that “many of the Staten Island displaced come from neighborhoods that traditionally support Republicans.” Adding that this could “create uncertainty in the congressional race,” says Flanagan.

In the long run, Staten Island’s politics will largely be determined by the desires and composition of its ethnic groups. But unlike the homogenous ethnic and voting blocs of the past, the population in the future promises to be more diverse and fragmented. For this reason, Richard Flanagan predicts “a crazy splatter blot of different political opinion.”

As far as Tuesday’s election is concerned, it looks like even with the disruption caused by Sandy, that Grimm is heading towards a win. But in terms of Staten Island’s politics in the future, Flanagan predicts a big change in the form of  “a real bi-racial, cross ethnic politician—able to bridge a lot of these divides among groups,” twenty to thirty years from now.

In which case Staten Island could go from being New York City ’s most politically  conservative borough, to one of its more ideologically and ethnically diverse.


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