Democrats Vie for Staten Island Congressional Seat

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Hillary Clinton will endorse Democrat Mike McMahon today in the congressional seat that encompasses Staten Island and part of Brooklyn

Republican congressman Vito Fossella resigned his seat in the wake of a marital scandal, and now Democrats believe they have their best chance yet to reclaim the seat. But first, there's a Democratic primary on Sept. 9. WNYC's Arun Venugopal followed the two Democratic candidates, Steve Harrison and Michael McMahon.

Out in Brooklyn, on an isolated stretch of the lower New York bay, Congressional candidate Steve Harrison is talking about waste.

HARRISON: I believe that the people of Gravesend and Bensonhurst believe and are entitled to a simple matter of environmental justice. They should be spared any future noxious uses of this property.

REPORTER: It’s a fairly long speech, dense on details about waste disposal.

The audience for Harrison’s speech is small – a couple of aides and a couple more members of the media. The one member of the public who wanders by is Jim Militello. For years he’s been trying to get the bike and running path we’re standing on repaired.

MILITELLO: I ride my bike in the morning between 8 and 9...

REPORTER: And he finds a sympathetic listener in Steve Harrison, a Brooklyn attorney and former head of the community board who also happens to be a marathoner.

HARRISON: You know how many times I’ve run this path? Seriously, about 2,000 times. I'm a prolific runner, my daughter's a prolific runner. And I know this thing like the back of my hand. What you’re saying is absolutely accurate.

REPORTER: Militello hasn’t gotten his solution, but he walks away impressed with Harrison's local knowledge and command of detail.

HARRISON: I like this man – Harrison – I think he’s a good man from what he said, and I’m going to vote for him.

REPORTER: This is Steve Harrison’s second run for Congress. With his grassroots campaign, he won 43 percent of the vote in 2006 against then powerful incumbent Vito Fossella. But Fossella is resigning. In March he admitted fathering a child with a woman who isn't his wife. So Harrison thinks this time he's got an even better shot. But the Democratic party of Staten Island doesn't agree. Party elders gave their support to Harrison's opponent, Staten Island Councilman Michael McMahon.

MCMAHON: About 25 of us went down there.

REPORTER: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even took him down to Washington for a candidate's school of sorts.

There they taught him the art of simple statements — like the slogan "Change We can trust."

MCMAHON: The ‘We’ - it’s the great people of this district, Staten Island and Brooklyn. Together the best people, the backbone of this city. The ‘Can’ is the Can Do attitude that we need to bring back to America, and to this part of the city. And Trust is about me, and my 6-7 years in the city council.

REPORTER: McMahon's received thousands of dollars from the campaigns of top Democrats like Rahm Immanuel, Steny Hoyer and Barney Frank. And tens of thousands more from unions and national Democratic groups. He's raised $500,000 to Harrison's $200,000.

Where Harrison is outspoken – on wanting to get out of Iraq for instance - McMahon is measured. Harrison also believes in marriage rights for same-sex couples. McMahon favors civil unions. And while McMahon thinks there may be the need for some offshore drilling, Harrison is completely against it.

AMBI: Hi I'm McMahon.

On a recent Sunday, McMahon was in Brooklyn.

MCMAHON: Hi, I’m Mike McMahon!

WOMAN: No more McCain!

MCMAHON: No no no, not McCain, McMahon. The Democrat.

WOMAN: Oh, okay, that sounds better.

MCMAHON: I’m the good Mick.

REPORTER: As a councilman, and head of the council’s sanitation committee, McMahon benefits from exposure and the opportunity to attend ribbon cuttings with the mayor.

He's also earned the trust of some constituents. Denise Mumm is an artist who lives on the North Shore of Staten Island.

MUMM: I see him at events and he has our ear, and he's made sure that local organizations get funding and get representation in the city.

REPORTER: Steve Harrison thinks he should've gotten the Democratic party's backing, but he says he's over it.

HARRISON: I never get upset. What I do recognize is there are machine politicians who had made good friends within the system and within the machine. But that's not what politics is about. I'm going to rephrase that. It's not what politics is supposed to be about. Politics is supposed to be about connecting with the people And letting them each time have a choice to make the determination as to who they want.

REPORTER: For his part, McMahon is continuing to put that machine to work, rolling up the big endorsements, almost daily. For WNYC, I'm Arun Venugopal.

GOP Struggles in Staten Island Congressional Race