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Trump Win Puts New Spark Into Staten Island Democratic Party, Officials Say

By Nicholas Rizzi | June 8, 2017 3:56pm
 Zach Emig (right) is one of four candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to run against Rep. Dan Donovan next year.
Zach Emig (right) is one of four candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to run against Rep. Dan Donovan next year.
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DNAinfo/Nicholas Rizzi and Cristine Trimarco

STATEN ISLAND — Anger over President Donald Trump has helped spark a resurgence for the Democratic party in the city's Republican stronghold, party officials say.

After several elections where Republicans ran unopposed, the Democratic party has candidates running for each seat in November's local election and four people vying for the nomination in next year's election against Rep. Dan Donovan, with potentially two more in the wings.

"Part of it is the whole Anti-Trump mentality," said Roy Moskowitz, a local Democratic political strategist who ran Richard Reichard's failed bid against Donovan. "That's motivated some people, some people have been thinking about running for a long time."

Historically, it has been hard to convince people to run in other elections against Republican incumbents, but anger over Trump ignited a spark in some to seek local office for the first time.

"Previously it was very difficult to have anybody run for office, the party chairman would turn up every rock trying to find somebody," said Kevin Elkins, a former staffer for Staten Island's Democratic Party who still sits on the board.

"People recognize more than ever right now how important it is to be involved and fight for the issues you care about. Sometimes it takes an election to see the consequences."

One of those candidates is bond trader Zach Emig, a motorcycle-riding MIT graduate who decided to run against Donovan in 2018 after volunteering for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

"If you had asked me a year ago you 'Would be running for Congress?' I would've been flabbergasted," said Emig, a former Crown Heights resident who recently moved to Tompkinsville. "It's really a matter of the election turning out so poorly last November and really coming to a point in my life where I couldn't really point fingers."

Emig added that the party has relied too heavily on seniority to pick nominations in previous elections, leading others to not run.

"The party apparatus has been picking the next guy in line for several cycles in a row and it's a product that's not selling," said Emig. "People who aren't next in line, people from different backgrounds are stepping forward."

If elected, Emig said he would fight to get more money into taxpayers' pockets, fight for universal health care, put people's rights over corporate rights and bring "down the wrath of God" on CEOs of pharmaceutical companies that profit from the opioid epidemic.

Aside from Emig, retired boxer Boyd Melson, retired NYPD officer Michael DeCillis and nonprofit executive Michael DeVito Jr. have already filed to run. Two more candidates are expected to throw their hats in soon, Moskowitz said, but he wouldn't release their names pending their official candidacy filings.

Republican leaders said they are not worried about the sudden competition from the other party.

"If it's such an Anti-Trump effect, I’m not sure why it's such a B-list of candidates," said Councilman Joe Borelli, who faces a Democratic challenger for his Council seat for the first time. "If there was actually signs of Donovan's vulnerability you would probably see more top-tiered candidates looking at the race."

Not all Democratic candidates cited Trump as their motivation to run.

Dylan Schwartz, who's running against Borelli for the City Council, said his decision to run was driven by the sense that nobody in office was addressing his community's problems.

"I have seen my Councilman on CNN more than I have on C-Span when I’ve watched City Hall," said Schwartz, 25. "It doesn't matter to me that you supported Trump, it matters to me that you've did it at the expense of my community."

Schwartz, who works in the medical marijuana industry, said caring for his sick mother and being frustrated by a lack of resources in his district motivated his run against Borelli.

"I'm not here to be a career politician," he said. "I'm doing this because I believe it's the right thing to do for my community."

Borelli said having his first competitor in an election since his 2010 Assembly run hasn't changed his tactics.

"I run like I have an opponent whether I have an opponent or not," he said. "For me, nothing's changed and I’m still out there knocking on doors."

Despite renewed support, Democrats still face a battle to knock out Donovan in the state's "most competitive" seat.

The borough generally votes Republican, except in the North Shore, and the seat was last held by a Democrat after Michael McMahon won in 2008. 

He later lost it to political newcomer Michael Grimm, who later held the seat against a better funded Dominick Recchia despite being under indictment for tax fraud.

And even as some voters turn against Trump, Donovan made in roads with some independents after he voted against the president's health care bill. However, others pointed to his support of Trump at other times and the protests in his district over his refusal to host a town hall with voters as signs that the seat's ripe for flipping.

Despite the borough's dead-red reputation, there are actually more registered Democrats on file with the Board of Elections for Staten Island than registered Republicans, data shows.

As of August 2016, there were 133,704 Democrats registered to vote in Staten Island — far more than than the 85,750 Republicans, according to BOE data. However, party insiders said many of the Democratic voters were GOP supporters who forgot to change their political party on BOE documents.