Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) returned to work Tuesday, attending a Capitol Hill hearing on net neutrality and casting votes just five days after being arrested and charged with drunken driving in suburban Virginia.
But despite the display of normalcy in the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, rumors were swirling behind the scenes that the 43-year-old Congressman might not be able to survive the spate of embarrassing headlines that have blared from New York newspapers since his arrest.
Susan Del Percio, a New York-based Republican consultant whom Fossella hired to advise him after his brush with the law, declined to discuss any aspect of Fossella’s legal case but said the Congressman is determined to carry out the people’s business.
“He is down [in Washington, D.C.,] today, and he is doing his job,” she said. “That’s where he’s focused.”
Privately, however, political leaders and operatives on both sides of the aisle were beginning to express doubt that Fossella can serve out the remainder of his term — let alone remain politically viable in November.
“I think the realization is beginning to sink in that he can’t last,” said one Washington, D.C., Republican.
Fossella was favored for re-election in his conservative Staten Island-Brooklyn district, but Democrats were already targeting him this year more aggressively than ever before. And while Fossella comes from a powerful Staten Island family and enjoys boy-next-door popularity in much of his district, it is becoming apparent that his political position could erode quickly.
“The one thing I don’t know the answer to, and I don’t know if anybody does, is what else is out there?” said another Washington-based Republican strategist who has worked on New York races before.
The actual DWI arrest, while serious, seems like a mere pittance compared to the revelations that followed, as New York tabloids unearthed details about the “mystery woman” who picked up Fossella from the Alexandria, Va., jail after his arrest. The newspapers also detailed a boozy night on the town Wednesday and winkingly implied that Fossella could be the father of the woman’s toddler, despite angry denunciations from Del Percio that the question did not dignify an answer.
If Fossella, who allegedly had a blood alcohol level of 0.17, more than twice the legal limit in Virginia, is found guilty of DWI, he could serve up to five days in jail, even though it is a misdemeanor offense.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Fossella’s likely Democratic challenger, New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia, have kept mum since the Congressman’s arrest.
“What’s the old expression — why get in the way of someone shooting himself?” one Democratic strategist said.
But Democratic and Republican operatives not involved in the race said they can easily envision a devastating ad campaign against Fossella.
Erick Mullen, a Washington-based Democratic media consultant who has worked in New York, said “it would be malpractice not to air a massive ad campaign around the Springsteen song ‘Fire,’” which describes a man fretting about his marital infidelity.
“His district may have forgiven the DUI, but it’s the sex and lies that’s going to drive seniors and women screaming into the streets and right into the Democratic column,” Mullen said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.