Civility was the first casualty in the war of words between Michael Grimm and Domenic Recchia, both running to represent Staten Island and some parts of Brooklyn in Congress.
The half-hour WABC debate taped Friday devolved into a shouting-match around the five-minute mark after Recchia inserted the first of many references to his opponent’s 20-count federal indictment during a discussion of the Ebola crisis. An online version of the debate can be watched here.
Grimm, the Republican incumbent, criticized the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Obama Administration’s response to the spread of Ebola to the United States, pointing to the CDC’s decision to let a nurse fly on a commercial flight despite her having treated the now-deceased Dallas Ebola patient.
The CDC green-lighted Amber Vinson’s request to go on vacation even though she experienced elevated temperatures. Vinson has since tested positive for Ebola.
Without missing a beat, Recchia said that Grimm shared responsibility because he had voted to cut funding for hospital preparedness.
“Absolutely not. It’s simply not true,” Grimm said. “The CDC has received more funding in the last two years than ever before.”
“OK you know what. You lied to the FBI. You lied to the U.S. Attorney. Now you’re lying to your constituents,” Recchia bellowed over Grimm’s protests.
Federal prosecutors indicted Grimm in April of this year, for fraud related to the management of his restaurant, with the trial set for December.
The charges have been the subject of a series of attack ads run by Recchia’s campaign and national Democrats assisting Recchia’s congressional bid.
Still, Grimm has remained resilient in the conservative district, and holds a 4-point lead over Recchia in the latest poll from Siena College.
Grimm accused Recchia of lying in turn about talks with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney, saying he was never interviewed by them.
“I’m going to ask you as a gentleman, you’re a lawyer. You have ethical obligations as an attorney. You’re saying something that’s false,” Grimm said, pointing his index finger inches away from Recchia’s chest.
“You are facing a 20-count criminal indictment. Face the facts.” Recchia reiterated.
The exchange calmed after the moderator Diana Williams told them she wouldn’t let the debate become a “shouting-fest” and asked Grimm directly about his indictments and whether the trial would hamper his effectiveness as a congressman.
Grimm assured Williams that the trial would take “two to three” weeks and that he would resign from office if found guilty, and used the opportunity to call Recchia a hypocrite for not calling on fellow indicted Democrats to step down.
“When my opponent makes these assertions as a lawyer, I think it’s very offensive and proves that he doesn’t believe in the Constitution,” Grimm said. “Many of his colleagues, that had 87-count indictments, [Recchia] stood on the steps of borough hall saying they should have their day in court,” alluding to the indictment of Brooklyn assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr. in 2003.
“No one in the world thinks that the House will flip to Democrats, it’s a Republican house,” Grimm said. “[Recchia] won’t even be at the table when big issues come up.”
“You’re not at the table now,” Recchia shrilly interjected. You’re not at the table now Michael, you’re not at the table.”
“How do you know? You’re not in Congress,” Grimm retorted.
When the moderator turned to the state and local reaction to Hurricane Sandy, Grimm went on the offensive, bashing Recchia for not doing enough to utilize the federal aid allocated for the recovery effort.
“After that money was given to the city, my opponent was the finance chair in the city council; not one press conference did he make, not one hearing did he hold,” Grimm said, before Recchia interrupted him.
“Because I’m not like that, I don’t grandstand, I work for the people,” Recchia shouted.
Grimm said that the bill, which he helped write, was meant to help rebuild one-and-two family homes, but the city only spent $300 million of that aid on those homes.
The debate enjoyed a peaceful interlude when Williams asked the candidates about the Eric Garner case.
Both expressed sympathy for the family of the Staten Island man who apparently died of a police chokehold and affirmed their belief in the capacity of the Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan.
The tone became hostile again when the subject turned to bridge tolls.
In past statements, Grimm repeatedly charged Recchia with working to raise tolls, and did so again in the debate. Recchia had voted for congestion pricing in 2008.
“I did not vote to raise the tolls. That is a complete lie,” Recchia said. “But then again look where it’s coming from, Michael, you lie under oath, you’re indicted for lying under oath.”
In closing remarks, Grimm extolled the service he has provided to his constituents and the relationship he has established with them, saying “they know me,” while Recchia maintained that he was running for Congress because the district is not being represented by someone the people can be proud of, again pointing out Grimm’s indictment.