STATEN ISLAND — Officially facing a Republican primary challenge from disgraced former Rep. Michael Grimm, Congressman Dan Donovan has decided now is the time to get out there and start meeting with his own constituents.
On Friday — just before Grimm officially launched his primary run — Donovan announced a public "coffee tour" to meet his constituents around Staten Island and Brooklyn, months after residents put up "missing" posters of him for refusing to host any town halls.
"I think it's hard not to see that it's connected to Grimm’s announcement and that he's feeling some pressure to get his face out there in the public," said Courtney Scott, who helped organized protests for a town hall with Fight Back Bay Ridge. "The timing of this announcement is a little suspect. It's hard not to see it through a sort of cynical lens as campaigning."
In March, missing posters went up on both sides of the Verrazano for Donovan after he refused residents' pleas to host a town hall meeting on health care.
A spokesman for Donovan previously said the congressman met individually with residents during the time and Donovan blamed the decision to skip town halls on "professional protesters" who disrupted an unrelated event early this year.
However, now faced with a challenge from Grimm, Donovan announced five "coffee" events open to the public in both boroughs to discuss "personal concerns, opinions and casework needs."
"There is nothing more important to me than hearing directly from the people of Staten Island and South Brooklyn about issues impacting individuals, families and businesses in our community," Donovan said in a statement announcing the tour.
"This coffee tour is a great opportunity for me to answer your questions, listen to your ideas, and hear directly about issues that matter to you. We have a lot of work to do in Washington, and I look forward to using the insights from these events to deliver continued results for the people of New York’s 11th congressional district."
Scott, who plans to attend one of the tours, said she met with Donovan with a small group in March but feels a larger town hall is still important for residents and is glad he finally heeded their call.
"It's definitely about having constituent's concerns answered on an individual basis, but it's also an opportunity from community to hear from one and other," said Scott. "It helps paint a whole picture. It's also a matter of accountability for our elected officials."
On Sunday, Grimm — who spent seven months in prison for tax fraud — announced his long-rumored primary campaign to get his seat back. So far Grimm has tried to ride a second populist movement back into office, this time promising to help President Donald Trump "drain the swamp."
“I believe that I will not be judged by my transgressions, but how I rebound in spite of them,” Grimm said at the rally, according to the New York Daily News.
“I know that my leadership is still sorely needed right here in Staten Island, in Brooklyn and in Washington, where the swamp still needs to be drained."
Grimm was elected first in 2010 thanks to Tea Party support and has pitched himself as the most pro-Trump candidate for the only borough he won in the presidential election.
Grimm borrowed the "drain the swamp" theme during his announcement, hired Trump campaign advisor Michael Caputo and recently slammed Donovan on NY1 for not supporting the president or voting Republican enough in office.
"It's hard to tell what's worse: the fact that Michael Grimm lied to his constituents, then quit and left them in the lurch with no representation under President Obama, or that he had one of the most liberal voting records of all Congressional Republicans," Jessica Proud, spokeswoman for Donovan's campaign, said Monday.
"Either way, voters can't trust Michael Grimm and we're trying to drain the swamp, not make it murkier. Dan is focused on doing the people's business and helping the President enact an agenda that will lead to an American renaissance."
Donovan, the city's lone Republican congressman, can also count on support from New York's entire GOP who chided Grimm for entering the race.
Whoever wins the primary still has to face off against a Democrat next year in the general election to win the seat and there are at least six candidates vying for that nomination.
"The fact that convicted felon Michael Grimm has a credible chance to beat Representative Donovan demonstrates the serious harm that this do-nothing Congress is inflicting on vulnerable Republican incumbents," said Evan Lukaske, spokesman for the DCCC.
"Ultimately, our Democratic candidate will face either a convicted felon or an ineffective and weak establishment politician entangled in an embezzlement scandal — a clear choice for voters on Staten Island and in Brooklyn.”
In 2014, Grimm was hit with a 20-count indictment for tax fraud after he underreported more than $1 million from an Upper East Side restaurant he co-owned before he took office.
He still won re-election that year but pleaded guilty to tax fraud shortly after his win and resigned from his seat. Donovan won the seat in a special election in 2015 and held onto it in 2016.
Grimm spent nearly seven months behind bars for the crime. And despite being slammed by a judge for characterizing his offense as only a minor one, Grimm, a onetime FBI agent, still doesn't believe he committed a crime.
"When I told people I'd be exonerated, I meant it, and if you asked me today if I committed a crime, my answer is no, with all my heart. Was I wrong? Yes. But I was civilly wrong. I take full responsibility for that; I don't hide from that," Grimm told the Staten Island Advance over the weekend.