Mr. Incredible Goes to Washington: NYC's Michael Grimm
Friday, December 10, 2010
When Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in January, it'll put New York City's delegation back into the minority and largely out of power. Except for Michael Grimm.
The 40 year-old former Marine and FBI agent will be the only Republican in the New York City delegation, making the freshman lawmaker the go-to guy for New York City's federal needs.
So who exactly is he?
He was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens and moved to Staten Island in 1993.
From an early age, he was unusually driven, and focused.
"I came home at 14 and said I was going to be a Marine, I'm going to study accounting, I'm going to be an FBI agent, and I'm going to be a lawyer," he recalled during a recent interview. "And my mother looked at me and said 'That's a lot to do.' I said, 'Well, I got a lot of time."
Not that he needed much time.
By 25, Grimm was a decorated combat veteran of the Marines, was working as a special agent of the FBI, and picked up the accounting degree he always wanted. "And at 28, I went to law school," he noted.
He also earned a black belt in karate.
In 2006, Grimm left the FBI, having worked undercover using the name "Mikey Suits." ("The mob gave me that name," Grimm told the Washington Times.) He left the FBI and got involved in a health food restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "I literally poured the concrete myself. I put up the tiles. I answered the phones. I washed the dishes. I did every aspect of that business when I started it off," he recalled.
But disruption from the 2nd Avenue Subway project was toppling businesses along the route. Grimm told me the government didn't do enough to alleviate the problems their construction was causing local businesses. He was already seeing established businesses teeter on the cusp of failure thanks to the project. So, before construction made its way down to his neighborhood, he sold his share of the company to his business partner.
Six months later, Grimm was running for congress.
For a guy who never attended a political event, and never made it a habit to vote in primaries, his debut on the campaign trail was impressive. He racked up pre-primary endorsements from Arizona Senator John McCain and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Each noted Grimm's impressive resume (Marines. FBI. Law School. Accountant.), noting it was the kind of outsider, non-political experience Washington needed more of.
But his opponent in the Republican primary, Michael Allegretti, poked holes in what he saw was Grimm's unbelievable resume. For example, Allegretti criticized Grimm for showing a photograph of himself in his Marine uniform with medals he didn't earn. Grimm said at the time of the photograph, his commanding officer told him he had been approved. The mistake, he says, surfaced long after the photograph — his only one — was taken.
The issue of Grimm's medals and that photograph took center stage during their televised debate on NY1. Grimm took umbrage to the line of question, at one point noting that it was coming from a man who never served in the military, had a "trust fund" and owned property in Manhattan.
Grimm concedes the medals were unwarranted, but defended his career.
"I risked my life. I came back and wore the ribbons and medals that my commanding officer told me to wear. And now you have the audacity to challenge me after serving this country? You sleep under a blanket of freedom that I helped provide," Grimm said. "You should just say thank you."
Grimm went on to win the primary with nearly 70 percent of the vote.
His Tea Party-fueled candidacy was on a roll. In the general election, he faced off against freshman Democrat Michael McMahon, who had served in the City Council for years. But he voted against the health care overhaul supported by Obama — angering many liberals and organized labor. But McMahon refused to support a rollback of the legislation, allowing critics to say he really wasn't opposing it.
McMahon's campaign had a few other missteps. An aide was fired for releasing to a reporter a list of Grimm's financial backers, with one category describing Grimm's "Jewish money." Later, a woman whose marriage to Grimm was annulled years earlier mysteriously appeared in the front row of a debate Grimm had with McMahon.
Grimm says her appearance was not an accident, and was meant to distract him. The Staten Island Advance, which hosted the debate, later called Grimm's performance that day "unflappable." McMahon's campaign was criticized for the ex-wife appearance and never really recovered.
On election night, Grimm took in 51 percent of the vote, and delivered an acceptance speech 90 minutes before McMahon conceded.
RECENTLY, I visited Grimm's campaign office in a small shopping center on Hyland Boulevard on Staten Island. Also there is a tanning salon, a store selling discounted uniforms, and a place offering free body waxes.
Not that Grimm needs any of that stuff. He is, to put it bluntly, handsome. He has a full head of black hair, striking blue eyes, and dimpled cheeks. It's the sort of pretty face that normally isn't in politics. Add to it the fact that he works out regularly, and you can imagine the kind of feedback he gets.
"You know what I get asked a lot: I get asked why I'm not married yet," he said. "I get asked that a lot."
He says he's single because of the work he's chosen to do. For example, when he was working undercover at the FBI, he says it was impossible to come home and be a family man. (One man who tried, with disastrous consequences, was Joseph Pistone, whose story was popularized by the movie Donnie Brasco.)
"I didn't see how I could do it," Grimm said. "The type of father that I would want to be, and the type of husband that I would want to be — I'll be completely honest. I'm having those same feelings right now about being in Congress."
So, for now, Grimm says he's not planning on having too many dates. On Staten Island, he lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a house he owns. He rents the upstairs to another family. In Washington, he says he is looking for a one-bedroom apartment.
For the freshman lawmaker — and New York City's only congressman in the majority — there's plenty to keep him busy.
A repeal of the health care bill President Obama trumpeted will be attempted in the first year of the new Congress, according to Grimm. Although he supports repealing, or at least defunding that bill, Grimm is quick to note he wants to work across the aisle with Democrats.
"That's exactly what Congress needs to do now. We have to stop saying 'Oh, you're a Democrat so I can't vote for your bill.' And you're a Republican, so I can't vote for your bill," he said. "This is an American bill."
How far Grimm is willing to compromise is unclear. He pointed to his opposition to abortion, where his position won't change, but where he hopes to at least have a respectful conversation with opponents.
"There's not much negotiation there. I'm pro-life," he said. "That's not going to change. But that doesn't mean I can't respect your debate. That doesn't mean we can't talk about the issue..."
And, as if right on cue, an aide entered the room and said, "The mayor's on line two."
Mayor Bloomberg, a pro-choice Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent, didn't support Grimm in the election. Now, with only one Congressman in the majority, the two are in touch regularly.
Grimm says he doesn't hold a grudge against Bloomberg for the campaign snub, or the 2nd Avenue subway project.
BEFORE leaving Grimm's office, he tells me he's going to work nearly 24-7. In fact, the interview was threatening to derail his already packed schedule. There was a school he needed to visit that afternoon before the start of a civic meeting he was planning to attend. To keep everything in order, Grimm said there's just one thing he needs to do for himself.
"The only thing I'm going to do is try to get an hour, at least three or four times a week in a gym. Because otherwise I'll go crazy," he laughs. "So, to keep my sanity, and to keep stress levels down, that's my vice."