Staten Island's Big Moment

Only '97 House race bathes long-trashed N.Y.C. borough in spotlight

For decades Staten Island has been the Rodney Dangerfield of New York's five boroughs. It's the place where other New Yorkers dump their garbage. Oil-tank farms line its "industrial waterways." And jets from Newark Airport scream over its salt marshes and town houses.

But, this fall, there's something different on the island: the nation's only congressional race.

Now, the working-class residents of the island can watch as politicians such as Arizona's Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp walk in parades and eat Italian sausages at street fairs. Even Vice President Al Gore hosted a fund-raiser on Wednesday for the Democratic candidate - a man who is barely known even by Staten Islanders.

The arm-wrestling by the national parties over the district began this August when Rep. Susan Molinari resigned her seat to work for CBS. Between Ms. Molinari and her father, Guy, the family had held the seat for 17 years. Mr. Molinari picked the GOP candidate, Vito Fossella, a protg, and a member of the City Council. The Democrats chose Eric Vitaliano, a state assemblyman and a favorite of organized labor.

The race has high visibility for a number of reasons. If the Democrats win, they reduce the Republican majority in the House to 10. Intent on defanging House Speaker Newt Gingrich, organized labor has homed in on the race as a chance to show what it can do. "Because it's the only race, the parties care about it, and they are going to pour some money into it," says Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes the Rothenberg Political Report, an independent newsletter.

And, the money is pouring in. Mr. Fossella expects to raise more than $1 million and Mr. Vitaliano is aiming for $750,000.

A parade of pols

Normally, a complete political unknown like Fossella would have a difficult time raising this kind of money. But, he's now getting contributions from Republican congressmen, who are pulling money out of their own reelection accounts and political action committees friendly to Republicans.

The Republicans are contributing manpower and money. Last Friday, Mr. Kemp worked a Fossella fund-raiser and met with small business owners. This past Sunday, Senator McCain marched with Fossella in a local Columbus Day parade and pressed the flesh at a Brooklyn street festival.

The Democrats are counting on Big Labor to help their candidate. In a recent letter to his members, Dennis Rivera, the president of the National Health & Human Service Employees Union wrote, "This is just the beginning of labor's drive to 'Take Back the House in 1998.' " Since the district has 75,000 union homes, Mr. Rivera's plea for votes might make a difference.

Conservative currents

Although the election may have national implications, there are a lot of local political cross currents. For example, Staten Island is Giuliani country. The city's Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, carried 80 percent of the borough's votes in the last election. It's likely to be a repeat performance for him on the island, where he has started to close down the massive Fresh Kills landfill and has eliminated the 50 cent fare on the Staten Island ferry. Fossella, who wears tailored dark suits that show off his chiseled good looks, campaigns as often as he can with Mr. Giuliani.

But Staten Island is also known for its ticket splitting. "This is a swing district," says Mr. Molinari, now the borough president who is also up for reelection. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 5 to 3. And many Democrats here are "Reagan Democrats" who often vote conservative.

Vitaliano, in fact, is hardly a mainstream Democrat. At an informal debate in the basement of a church, he tells the Decker Avenue Civic Association that he was the author of the death-penalty bill, authored a bill banning late-term abortions, and once sued his own party's leader (over Staten Island's right to secede from the city) and "lived to tell about it." An affable portly man who wears tent-like suits, he actually sought the Conservative Party's backing.

The Conservatives, however, threw their weight to Fossella who is also on the ticket of the small Independence Party. Although in politics only three years, he has caught on quickly. "I had low expectations for Fossella, but he was better than I expected," says Mr. Rothenberg who met the candidate in July.

Vitaliano's polls indicate the race is still very close. This is borne out in popular opinion at the Staten Island Mall, the island's largest shopping plaza.

John Vigiliant, a resident of Huguenot, a town on the Island's south shore, says he hasn't made up his mind yet. "I think we need to vote for them on the basis of local issues," he says. For the time being those local issues have caught the national attention.

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