Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
This is the third in a new five-part series called "The New York Vote," a partnership between WNYC and Capital New York. We will be painting a portrait of the New York electorate in 2010, as explained by a diverse cast of political players.
Today, the vantage point of an immigrant activist on Staten Island. There is no enthusiasm gap for her from 2008, when she worked for Barack Obama, and 2010, when she is fighting to elect Michael McMahon against a Tea Party challenger.
Jennifer Brumskine’s job as a volunteer for Congressman Michael McMahon’s reelection campaign on Staten Island is to get the North Shore out to vote.
A Liberian immigrant and self-described die-hard Democrat who is in her 40s, she currently spends nights and weekends calling, knocking on doors and handing out literature to African-American and new-citizen voters in her neighborhood. This is all part of an effort to overcome what she sees as the single biggest hurdle facing her candidate.
“Let me tell you the problem with mid-term elections,” she said. “People tend to be laid-back. They don't do much. They don't pay attention. So this is a mid-term election and it seems it's a little tough. My kind of people -- the black young folks -- they only vote in federal elections.”
Staten Island bears more of a resemblance to the rest of New York State, demographically, than to any other part of the New York City. It’s whiter, more conservative and has a far higher percentage of homeowners per capita than the city as a whole -- 46 percent in the other four boroughs compared to 69.2 percent on Staten Island. And unlike all other city-based congressional districts, each of which will likely return a Democratic incumbent to Washington this November by a wide margin, the 13th district -- which includes all of Staten Island plus the Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights and Gravesend neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and which was carried in 2008 by John McCain -- is at least competitive.
The challenge for the McMahon campaign is the same one facing Democrats in marginal districts around the state: two years after the Obama tidal wave, they are now reckoning with what consultant types call an “enthusiasm gap” scenario. Supporters of the out party are angry and vote in high numbers, while supporters of the incumbents, dispirited and without high-profile top-of-the-ticket national candidate to rally behind, stay home. Which makes the prospect of turning out reliably Democratic constituencies, like black and immigrant voters, that much more challenging -- and that much more crucial for Democrats.
Brumskine, for her part, is a living rebuke to the enthusiasm-gap concept. She is animated and passionate when she talks about McMahon and the Democratic Party and equally so when the Tea Party is mentioned. She talks about her candidate with the certainty of a true believer, but understands her political role with unsentimental clarity: interlocutor between the predominantly white, Democratic political establishment of Staten Island and the immigrant and African-American residents that represent the fastest-growing parts of the city’s fastest-growing borough.
“Most of the young black voters, those are the ones that don’t even know there will be an election on November 2nd,” Brumskine said. “Those are the ones we want to touch and talk to and try to convince and tell them, yes, [McMahon] is running for the Democratic Party. He represents what you stand for.”
Her loyalty to McMahon is a result of the work he did on behalf of the Staten Island’s Liberian community -- reportedly the largest in the world outside of Liberia itself -- dating back to his time as a city councilman representing the North Shore. During the civil war in Liberia, Brumskine said, McMahon worked to help Liberian immigrants in his district when few people knew or cared about what was happening in her home country in West Africa. This included procuring grant money for a local Liberian outreach office and raising awareness about the civil war.
“He was one of those that would put his name and face in the paper, because at that time most people didn’t even understand the plight of the Liberian people,” said Brumskine. “I would do whatever it takes to get McMahon back into Congress.”
Brumskine says the North Shore’s immigrant population is behind McMahon, but that McMahon’s volunteers and organizers elsewhere in the district -- which is just under 75 percent white, according to the most recent U.S. census data -- will have it much harder.
“In the campaign itself, it needs to do a little bit more work to get people like you, because people like us are getting out to our people,” she said. “So people like you -- that look like you -- need to get out to your kind of people to make sure the vote comes this midterm.”
Given the district’s Republican leanings -- despite a Democratic registration edge, McMahon’s victory in 2008 made him the first Democrat in 18 years to hold the seat -- it should come as no surprise that McMahon has compiled a congressional record that seems designed to elicit as little passion as possible. Case in point: while debate raged in Washington over Barack Obama’s national health care bill, McMahon largely stayed quiet; when every other member from New York City finally voted for it, he voted, with little fanfare, against.
Brumskine, a strong supporter of both Obama and the health care bill, says she understands.
“The people of Staten Island put him in Congress,” she said. “And I'll tell you: I live in Staten Island, as an advocate. He tried to reach out. People that put him there said, 'No, we don't want it.' So what is he left with?”
She added, “On the health care bill, I may disagree -- I asked him to vote for it, don't get me wrong -- but in going back, and analyzing the reason why he didn't vote for it, that's why I sit here and still support him.”
For all the balancing McMahon has had to do -- or perhaps because of it -- his campaign is in good shape, with a healthy $1.15 million on hand going into these final weeks. Internal polling by his opponent, former FBI agent and first Gulf War veteran Michael Grimm, reportedly showed McMahon with a comfortable eight-point lead back in September. Things have been so static that the Siena Research Institute this week took a pass on polling the district, according to the Staten Island Advance, declaring it a non-competitive race. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog on the New York Times’ website gives McMahon an 81.1 percent chance of victory. He has the Independence Party line and James P. Molinaro, the Conservative borough president, has endorsed him.
McMahon’s opponent has become a Tea Party cause, but Brumskine seems to consider that more annoyance than threat.
“The so-called Tea Party you are calling are a bunch of fools that are just creating chaos and hatred,” she said. "They know nothing about politics. Some of them can't even pick up their own daily newspaper to read, so they don't even know what's going on.”
Grimm, McMahon's opponent, won the Republican nomination in a primary in which a total of about 12,000 people -- or 13 percent of registered Republicans -- voted. Brumskine believes that McMahon’s support on Staten Island’s North Shore alone can trump that Republican base, and then some.
“When it comes to local elections, in terms of the African American and the original blacks from Africa, I think, as of 2010, we're becoming more competitive now in local races,” she said. “Most of the immigrants live on the North Shore, and our kids are now going on to college -- they're of voting age. So any local election that happens, if the immigrant communities going to endorse you, you're definitely going to win."