Challenger Set to Take On Fossella?

By Helen Klein

After all the hoopla, and lots of speculation, the Democrats appear to have settled on something of a “dark horse candidate” to run against incumbent Republican Representative Vito Fossella. Rumor has it that Brooklyn civic leader Stephen Harrison – formerly the chairperson of Community Board 10 and now the board’s zoning chair — has been tapped as the Democratic candidate to run, this year, in the 13th Congressional District, which includes all of Staten Island, as well as portions of southwestern Brooklyn. As reported in this paper as far back as July, speculation about whom the candidate might be had included many current elected officials, including City Councilmembers Vincent Gentile and Michael McMahon, as well as Assemblymember Michael Cusick and State Senator Diane Savino. The hope expressed at the time by Democratic insiders was that a well-known nominee could build on the inroads made in 2004 by Democratic candidate Frank Barbaro, who reaped a larger percentage of the vote than had been predicted and, in fact, had carried Brooklyn. But, sources say that Harrison, a relative unknown in much of the district, is likely to be the candidate, and will get the support of the Staten Island Democratic organization, with confirmation expected shortly. Democratic District Leader Ralph Perfetto, who has been working with Harrison on his possible candidacy, said that a meeting had been scheduled with Democratic Staten Island county leader John Lavelle and other members of the committee, which would be taking place as this paper is going to press. “I am optimistic,” Perfetto noted, “that we will come away with the endorsement.” Perfetto said that he believed that the endorsement would, in effect, give Harrison a clear run for the Democratic nomination. “I don’t think there will be a primary,” he remarked. “We have been preparing for this for months. In 2004, Steve wanted to run, but he acquiesced to Frank. We want unity. Steve said that the one thing we don’t want is to get into a fight. Vito has gotten away with too much. Now, he has to be held accountable.” Harrison, for his part, would not confirm that he would be the Democratic candidate. “I will support whoever is nominated,” he responded when asked whether he would be the nominee. “I hope it’s me. If it is me, I look forward to a spirited campaign with Vito Fossella, and I look forward to returning the U.S. Congress to the Democrats.” In the meantime, the other candidates who have been mentioned have bowed out. After a couple of weeks rife with rumors as to his possible candidacy, Gentile, sent out a press release announcing that he would not make the race. “While I have been urged to run for the 13th Congressional seat by Democrats on both sides of the bridge, and I am very honored to have been considered for this nomination by John Lavelle and the Staten Island Democratic county Search Committee, I enjoy my job in the New York City Council and I look forward to working on local and citywide issues and achieving much,” Gentile said. “I am prepared to support the nominee and work hard for the nominee,” Gentile said during a subsequent interview. “After four races in three years, it’s a little bit a function of battle fatigue, plus I enjoy what I’m doing.” McMahon, too, said he would not run for the seat. “After discussions with my family,” he explained, “we’ve decided that given family circumstances it would not be in the best interests of my family for me to run at this time. Between my wife and me, we’ve run six elections in the past five years. I have two children – a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old, and it would be asking too much of them to make a run for Congress.” His current job, added McMahon, is very rewarding. “As a city councilman, I have a lot of proposals I’ve been working on and want to see to completion in the district – two new schools, a new library, a community recreation center and the redevelopment of the home port site.” Asked whether he had now set his sights on the borough presidency (the current Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinaro will be forced out by term limits in 2010), McMahon said, “I haven’t set my sights on anything right now as much as doing my job in the City Council and focusing on that. We have a wonderful new speaker, and I think it’s going to be a golden time.” Savino, who had previously said she would not make the run, expressed support for the likely nominee. “Although Steve’s candidacy has not been formally announced,” she said in a brief statement provided to this paper, “his name has come up. We know him for his activism in Bay Ridge and the rest of Brooklyn, and I feel that he’s smart, capable and a solid Democrat.” However, defeating Fossella, an incumbent with a large campaign war chest, will be “an uphill battle,” Perfetto acknowledged. “But, we love the challenge,” he continued, stressing that Harrison had a solid reputation in Brooklyn to build upon. “He was in the forefront of the down-zoning issue,” Perfetto recalled, adding, “What’s not known is that Steve has relatives in Staten Island, and he has a lot of friends and professional colleagues out there, and his law partner lives in Staten Island. The plan is to get out there and let the people know who Steve is. If they see the quality of he candidate, they’ll realize what they have settled for, all this time.” Perfetto said that while it appears that Fossella is well outside the corruption scandal that is plaguing Republicans in Washington, the congressman, “Is an appendage to Bush and Cheney policies, and he can’t divorce himself from that. “That’s what we are going to nail him on,” Perfetto went on. “We’re going to use the national platform. There’s a lot to go after. We’ve had enough of them wrapping themselves in the American flag as if they’re the only patriots.” Asked to comment, Craig Donner, a spokesperson for Fossella, said, “If Steve is the candidate, I’d like to welcome him to the race. I am disappointed that his campaign advisors are using words like ‘nail him’ to describe the tactics of his campaign, and I hope that, unlike past Democratic campaigns, whoever the candidate is, this time, will focus on the issues and not personal attacks. “As far as Vito’s campaign,” Donner went on, “we’re going to run an aggressive campaign focused on the successes we have had over the past several years, including keeping Fort Hamilton open, securing an agreement to rebuild the Shore Parkway seawall, and funding secured to build a new, third bus depot to expand mass transit on Staten Island. We’ll also talk about Vito’s plans and priorities for the future, things like homeland security funding, ways to protect the community from over-development and how to keep the nation and the community safe.” Cusick – whose office confirmed that he had decided not to run for Congress – could not be reached by press time.

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