It was a verbal slugfest.
The first debate between Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan and his challenger, Michael Grimm, did not disappoint political observers who were hoping for fireworks.
During a one-hour live debate on 77 WABC Radio on Monday, the two men sparred over everything from Grimm’s criminal record to Donovan’s efforts to save the Brooklyn Veterans Administration hospital to whether the incumbent sought to convince President Donald Trump to grant Grimm a pardon.
The two candidates frequently interrupted each other and had several tense exchanges.
Grimm’s past was a frequent topic of discussion during the contentious showdown moderated by WABC Political Affairs Director Rita Cosby, co-host of the “Curtis and Cosby Show.”
Grimm, who had been elected to Congress in 2010, pleaded guilty in early 2015 to a federal tax fraud charge stemming from his ownership of a health food restaurant and his hiring of undocumented immigrants. He resigned from Congress. Donovan, the former Staten Island district attorney, won the seat in a special election in May of 2015.
Now Grimm is running against Donovan in the Republican Primary on June 26 to get his old seat back representing New York’s 11th Congressional District (Southwest Brooklyn-Staten Island).
Donovan charged that Grimm pulled a fast one on voters going into the 2014 election, in which Grimm defeated Democrat Domenic Recchia. Donovan said Grimm, who was already under investigation for tax fraud, told voters he was innocent of the charges against him. And after he won re-election, he cut a plea deal with federal prosecutors and pleaded guilty, Donovan said.
“He betrayed our trust. Weeks later he sold us out for a deal with the Justice Department,” Donovan said.
As district attorney, “I put people like him in prison,” Donovan said of Grimm.
Grimm countered that he was charged with paying four of his undocumented immigrant workers off the books, a common practice of restaurant owners in New York City. He contended that he should have faced a civil penalty, not criminal charges.
When Cosby asked Grimm if he is in any position to criticize undocumented immigrants since he himself hired them, the challenger said a business owner hiring low-skilled workers for minimum wage usually finds that undocumented immigrants are the only ones applying for those jobs. “Americans, unfortunately, don’t show up for those jobs. Either you close your business or you hire undocumented workers,” he said.
Cosby asked Grimm point-blank if he had sought a pardon from President Donald Trump.
Donovan said former Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari asked him to look into a pardon for Grimm. But during a conversation with the president, Trump asked Donovan if Molinari had supported him in the 2016 election. Donovan replied no, that Molinari was a Never Trumper. “The President did not care to hear this at all,” Donovan said.
Grimm came under fire for not releasing his tax returns. Donovan released his tax returns in April. Grimm said he will not release his tax returns, “because I’m not required to.”
Donovan seized on Grimm’s refusal. “How many things have you been hiding from the public?” he asked him.
Grimm charged that Donovan has done nothing to stop funding cuts to the Veterans Administration Medical Center. The center is located at 800 Poly Place in Bay Ridge. “The Brooklyn VA has done nothing but cut services,” Grimm said.
“We kept services open. We will keep the ENT open,” Donovan said referring to the medical center’s ear, nose and throat clinic which is threatened with closure due to budget cuts.
The recent case involving Pablo Villavicencio, the undocumented immigrant from Ecuador who was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents while delivering a pizza to the Fort Hamilton Army Base in Bay Ridge became a bone of contention between Donovan and Grimm when the conversation broadened to Sanctuary Cities and whether local governments should be protecting undocumented immigrants .
“People are blaming ICE and military officers for enforcing the law. They did exactly what they were supposed to do. They did their jobs,” Donovan said.
Grimm charged that Donovan supported granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants. Donovan denied it. Grimm also said Donovan opposed cutting federal funding to Sanctuary Cities. Donovan said he opposes the idea of harboring illegal immigrants but that a bill to cut funding to Sanctuary Cities went too far. It would have cut funding for the NYPD, he said.
Grimm called Sanctuary Cities “a horrible” policy and said that it “puts our police officers at risk.”
Grimm also claimed that Donovan pleaded with him not to run against him in primary. He claimed Donovan told him, “Give me two more years,” and that then he would retire from Congress and be eligible for a government pension.
Donovan shook his head and denied Grimm’s contention.
Grimm said that Donovan has not passed any substantive legislation during his time in Congress.
Donovan described himself as the most productive freshman lawmaker in the House in terms of the number of bills passed.
Cosby noted that Trump has endorsed Donovan in the race.
“Dan Donovan has the entire establishment behind him. I have the people behind me. I’m fine with that,” Grimm said.