Was Michael Grimm a good congressman?
The responses to that question by Democratic City Councilmember Vincent Gentile and Republican Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan during a fast-paced debate sponsored by NY1 and The Staten Island Advance on Tuesday, April 14 were predictable, certainly, as the two seek to win over voters in the 11th Congressional District in southwestern Brooklyn and Staten Island ahead of the May 5 special election.
No, said Gentile.
Yes, said Donovan.
The pair and Green Party candidate James Lane are vying to replace Grimm, a Republican who resigned in January after pleading guilty to tax evasion.
Few of their other answers were as succinct. Donovan sought to cast Gentile as a tax-and-spend Democrat, needled him for media assessments of his tenure in the City Council such as “Mr. Gentile has little clout,” and wondered how Gentile could bring the bacon home to the district as a junior congressmember from the minority party.
“My opponent’s answer to everything is to raise taxes,” Donovan asserted, when the candidates were asked about securing funding to repair crumbling infrastructure in the district.
While Gentile said he supports a one-time tax on “overseas profits of multinational corporations,” that he said would “produce $120 billion for the Highway Trust Fund for road repairs,” and “also produce another $50 billion for a new infrastructure fund,” Donovan said he would, “Encourage them to invest money in America by not taxing the money they invest.”
As for lack of clout, Gentile noted that he had, in fact, “brought over $60 million back to the district,” and stressed, “Sometimes a legislator has to take a stand, say no when a mayor comes to you, in this case Bloomberg, and wants to raise a tax. I said no in 2007 and I did it again with congestion pricing.”
Gentile, for his part, went after Donovan for his lack of legislative experience and for what he called Donovan’s “lack of vision.
“There is a void in the seat of Congress in the 11th C.D.,” Gentile said. “We all know that, but you don’t fill a void with another void.
“This election,” he added, “should be a message to Congress that we won’t take a Republican budget that gives New York City a $13.4 billion hit in transportation, health care, housing. It’s a bad budget for the middle class and for New York.”
Donovan had a different take on the issues. “I’m running for Congress,” he said, “Because I believe the country is going in the wrong direction. I believe people are being squeezed out of their homes.”
While noting that government should do for people what they are unable to do for themselves (such as disaster relief), he said, “I believe government should get out of your life, lower taxes, lift the boat up [to strive for equality] instead of getting equal by pulling successful people down.”
Gentile also assailed Donovan for his decision not to release transcripts from the 2014 grand jury deliberations in the Eric Garner case, with respect to the actions of Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who had allegedly used a banned chokehold on Garner, who collapsed and died.
As far as the Garner case was concerned, Donovan said that keeping the deliberations of a grand jury out of the public eye was important in order to shield people who were investigated but not indicted, as well as to give a sense of security to witnesses, who he said are often unwilling to come forward because of the potential notoriety.
While a judge declined to open the grand jury minutes in that controversial case, Gentile reminded Donovan that, in 2012, he had actually opened the minutes to public view in the case of the People v. Bonelli.
“Was it more of a concern to keep the grand jury secret to avoid criticism of himself and his office?” demanded Gentile with respect to the Garner case, contending, “Secrecy breeds suspicion.”
“I don’t know what case he’s talking about,” responded Donovan, noting that 12,000 cases annually come before the D.A.
Gentile also scored points when, in a brief cross-examination phase of the debate, he asked Donovan what the current federal minimum wage was. Donovan strove to provide nuance to his position, noting “I never said I was against raising the minimum wage. I said if you do that without helping small businesses, you would lose jobs because businesses would close,” but never actually answered the question.
Interestingly, both candidates dropped the names of officials from the other side of the aisle. Defending the framework being developed by the Obama administration for a potential nuclear deal with Iran, Gentile cited Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who, he noted, “Said let’s give the framework a chance,” and Donovan cited Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer as being opposed to it, as being potentially dangerous to Israel.
There were more than occasional moments of agreement. Both candidates said their most recent vacations had been in Florida – “We weren’t together,” quipped Donovan – and both said they supported supplying police officers with body cams. Both also said they had never missed voting in an election, acknowledged having voted for someone who was not a member of their political party, and both candidates admitted that they had tried marijuana.