GOP All but Ready to Mourn Loss of Staten Island

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

NEW YORK -- For almost three decades, the congressional seat that includes Staten Island and a slice of Brooklyn has been a reliably Republican redoubt, the last conservative bastion in a city that is so overwhelmingly left-leaning and Democratic that it has become synonymous with "liberal" and "elite."

But after a series of twists and turns that shocked even jaded New Yorkers, the 13th Congressional District seat is now rated by Democrats nationally as their surest bet for a pickup in November. And stunned Republicans are left lamenting how the once safe district has become for them the Unlucky 13th.

"This is going Democratic -- I don't think there's any question about that," said former borough president Guy Molinari, the dean of Staten Island Republicans. He held the congressional seat for nine years himself before handing it over to his daughter, Susan Molinari. "It's sad losing this seat," he said. "It's bad for the city."

Democrats are banking heavily on City Councilman Michael McMahon, who won the Democratic primary and has been endorsed by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer, as well as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I).

Loss of the 13th District seat would only add to the woes of the Republican Party statewide, which was once dominated by figures such as Nelson Rockefeller and Alfonse D'Amato but now seems headed for extinction. Democrats hold the governor's office, both U.S. Senate seats, and the State Assembly, and they are within striking distance of taking control of the state Senate in November.

Only six of the state's 29 members of Congress are Republican, and Democrats are eyeing two seats as prime targets: the 13th and the 29th District seat of Rep. John R. "Randy" Kuhl Jr. in Western New York.

The GOP's troubles are so bad that many Republicans are openly pleading with former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to get into the governor's race in 2010, if for no other reason than to try to resuscitate the state party. (Giuliani has been campaigning for Sen. John McCain for president and has made no statement about his plans).

The implosion in Staten Island began in May, when popular Republican Rep. Vito J. Fossella, who has held the seat since 1997, was arrested in Virginia for drunken driving, and it was discovered he had a mistress and an out-of-wedlock child. He announced he would not seek reelection.

To replace Fossella, the Staten Island Republican establishment settled on Francis H. Powers, a retired Wall Street executive and major GOP donor. But in late June, Powers died of a heart attack. Molinari said he had met with Powers two days earlier, and "we spent most of the time talking about his health."

One by one over the summer, various Republican figures declined to run for the seat, perhaps fearing a Democratic landslide in New York during a presidential-election year with an unpopular representative of the party in the White House. With Republicans unable to find a strong contender, former state assemblyman Robert Straniere stepped forward -- much to the chagrin of party leaders.

Straniere served 24 years in the legislature in Albany but was dogged much of that time by questions about his tangled personal finances, bad real estate deals and failed business ventures, most recently a high-end hot dog restaurant in Manhattan that he shut down in July after only a year.

Straniere won a bitter primary against cardiologist Jamshad Wyne after a campaign that included accusations that Wyne was using the nickname "Jim" to conceal his Pakistani and Muslim origins. The battle was so ugly that Wyne later quit the Republican Party and his job as party finance chief for Staten Island, claiming he was denied the nomination because of racism.

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