Fossella’s Future in Doubt

Posted May 6, 2008 at 7:00pm

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.

The Republican operative who has worked in New York said one thing Fossella may have going for him is the volatile Gotham media market. Even though New York newspapers, particularly the Daily News, are aggressively pursuing the Fossella story now, other sensational events in the city will quickly overtake it. What’s more, buying time on the New York City airwaves is so expensive that the Democrats will not be able to saturate the market with anti-Fossella ads, the operative said.

Still, a New York-based GOP consultant who did not want to be named said some Republican insiders have been advised not to defend Fossella too aggressively, for fear that it could hurt the party’s efforts to hold his seat if he chooses to resign or retire.

Already names are floating of possible Republican contenders for Fossella’s seat, such as state Sen. Andrew Lanza and City Councilmen James Oddo and Vincent Ignizio. All are relatively young and quite popular.

Both parties are nervously considering the possibility that a quick Fossella resignation will force a special election to replace him.

Lee Daghlian, a spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections, said that if Fossella resigns before July 1, Gov. David Paterson (D) has the option of calling a special election or leaving the seat vacant until the next Congress. If he resigns after July 1, there will be no special election.

If there is a special election, there would be no primary: Party leaders would designate nominees, though Independent candidates would have 10 days to circulate petitions to get their names on the ballot.

Although Recchia had more cash on hand than Fossella as of March 31 — $325,000 to $248,000 — his greatest handicap may be the fact he comes from Brooklyn, while most of the Congressional district’s voters are in Staten Island. If there is a special election, it is possible that party leaders from that borough may try to tap one of their own as the nominee — though the top three Democratic elected officials on Staten Island, state Sen. Diane Savino, state Assemblyman Michael Cusick and City Councilman Michael McMahon, have all declined to run against Fossella in the past.

In addition to Recchia, lawyer Stephen Harrison, Fossella’s 2006 challenger, is also seeking the Democratic nomination.

“There’s a lot of speculation,” one Staten Island political insider said Tuesday, “but nobody really knows anything.”