Profiles in Courage: Steven Harrison takes on the Republicans (and the Democrats, too)

PoliSciAfterParty Previews the 2008 Elections

Attempting to defeat a Congressional incumbent is a lot like trying to chug a gallon of milk – an extraordinarily difficult task which, while theoretically possible, is far more likely to leave you violently ill and thoroughly disgusted with the whole process.

Being an experienced politician helps. So do local fame, friends in high places, and the ability to raise large sums of money.

Steven Harrison has none of these qualities. But that didn’t stop him from throwing his hat into the ring in 2006, where, as the Democratic nominee in New York’s 13th District, he bravely (or perhaps foolishly) challenged Vito Fossella for a seat that has been in Republican hands since 1980. And goshdarnit, he nearly pulled it off.

The 13th District consists primarily of Staten Island – a borough known as a bastion of conservatism in an otherwise liberal city – as well as a few socioeconomically similar neighborhoods on the Brooklyn side of the Verrazano. Despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, Islanders tend to elect GOPers to Congress, and usually by wide margins. By 2006, it was New York City’s only House seat held by Republicans – and one of only six in the state’s 29-member Congressional delegation.

The GOP dominance extends to other levels of government as well. Republican Borough Presidents have presided over Island politics since 1990, and in 2004, George W. Bush handily carried the district, winning 55%-45%. The question for Island Democrats, then, is: what gives?

A quick look at the demographics, and things begin to make sense. The 13th is almost three-quarters white, and nearly 30% Italian – making it the most heavily Italian district anywhere in the country (i.e., we have good pizza). Average household income exceeds $62,000. The poverty rate is just 10.2%. All skew Republican far more than the comparable citywide statistics – 44% white, $46,000 median income, 19.2% poverty rate. Apparently, well-to-do white people tend to vote in their economic interest, regardless of the affiliation affixed to their voter registration cards.

So, even with the deck heavily stacked against him, Harrison, an attorney from Bay Ridge, mounted a surprisingly spirited campaign against Fossella in 2006, after better known Democrats, seeing little chance of victory, declined to run. From the outset, Harrison had three strikes against him.

  • Not a Staten Islander: With politics in the 13th weighted so heavily towards Staten Island, it is extremely difficult for Brooklyn-based candidates to win elections. Harrison, who was born in Bay Ridge and still resides there, was burdened with the onus of outsider – even though his mother and sister are both Island residents.
  • No Political Experience: Harrison had never held public office; his scant governmental resume consisted of a brief stint as the Chair of Brooklyn’s Community Board 10. His only previous foray into electoral politics came in 2003, when he ran for City Council – and amassed a whopping 7% of the vote.
  • Inability to Raise Money: Island Unknown + Zero Credentials = Not Much Campaign Financing. Harrison spent just $130,000 on his run for Congress, a far cry from Fossella’s $1.5 million war chest.

And if that wasn’t enough, Harrison had to contend with Fossella’s overwhelming popularity. A political prodigy and something of a hometown hero, Fossella averaged 64% of the vote since he was first elected to Congress in 1997.

Staking his campaign on opposition to the Iraq War, Harrison portrayed Fossella as a card-carrying Bush loyalist unwilling to break with Administration prerogative on any major issue. His strategy nearly worked, as he won 43% of the vote, handing Fossella his toughest challenge to date. In raw figures, Harrison lost by a mere 14,203 votes – not bad for a no-name outsider with meager political experience.

Buoyed by his surprising showing, Harrison looked ahead with great anticipation to 2008. He had made the all-important leap from complete unknown to relative unknown. Republicans were, amazingly, even less popular than they were two years ago. Sure, Fossella remained formidable, but it certainly seemed as if the stars were aligning for an upset.

Then, in May 2008, just a few months before the election, Vito discovered the hard way that drunk driving and illegitimate lovechildren do not make for good campaign themes. In a blink, Fossella’s auspicious political career was over – and the only Republican House seat in New York City was completely up for grabs. Harrison’s wildest dream had just come true!

There was only one problem. Once the Democrats realized they had a realistic shot to win the seat, Harrison was no longer good enough to be their nominee. Within weeks of Fossella’s unexpected withdrawal, Island Dems anointed Mike McMahon, a well-known, two-term Councilman from the North Shore, their candidate. It was as if Harrison had been the loyal fan who kept renewing his season tickets through years of losing, only to discover that, once his beloved ball club began winning, his seat had be reallocated to corporate sponsors.

But Harrison has never been one to back down from an uphill struggle, and he has continued his campaign with a redoubled effort. His campaign posters are a ubiquitous presence at major Island intersections. Harrison is a ubiquitous presence mornings at the Staten Island Ferry. And in a display of his growing appreciation of Staten Island culture, he has positioned his campaign headquarters in a strategically important location: right next to Joe & Pats.

With the borough GOP in disarray, the Democratic Primary on September 9th is likely to decide who Staten Island next representative in Congress will be. Given Harrison’s commitment to sticking it out through the hard times, we owe it to him to at least give a serious look at his candidacy, and how it compares to McMahon’s.

Positioning himself as the only true progressive in the race, Harrison stands to left of McMahon on several key issues:

· An unqualified opponent of the Iraq War, Harrison advocates complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. McMahon favors a more measured and gradual approach.

· On healthcare, Harrison would establish a single-payer system with universal access for all Americans. McMahon prefers to expand existing government assistance programs for the poor – for example, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP – and would offer all American the opportunity to buy into the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program

· On the economy, Harrison urges repeal of the Bush tax cuts for corporations and wealthy Americans. McMahon has concentrated on investing in education and making college affordable. Both candidates support fair trade policies that protect American jobs from unfair foreign competition and call for an increase in the minimum wage.

· Environmentally, Harrison demands massive investment in alternative energy, with the goal not only of reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil, but of ending the nation’s use of fossil fuels entirely. Building off his work with the City Council, McMahon has focused his efforts on recycling and expanding public transportation.

Predictably enough, Harrison takes the hardcore liberal stance on all the core social issues: he supports marriage equality for same-sex couples, stem-cell research, gun control, and a woman’s right to choose – the last of which garnered him the endorsement of the National Organization for Women.

On issues specific to Staten Island, the candidates do not differ much on their positions, with both calling for controlled development and better management of Staten Island’s traffic woes. It is here though, with local issues, that Harrison’s most glaring weaknesses come to light. While he presents a menu of interesting policy ideas, including eliminating the Verrazano Bridge toll and introducing booth-less toll plazas, McMahon is able to cite an established record of policy achievements. And that, ultimately is McMahon’s primary advantage in this primary: he is a career legislator, Harrison is not.

A member of the Council since 2002, McMahon, who also has a private law practice, has twice won reelection to the Island’s North Shore District, most recently with 62% of the vote in 2005. As Chair of the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, he has played an important role in the development of a long-term solid waste plan for the city and fought to keep the Fresh Kill landfill closed. His so-called “Ferry Bill,” which was signed into law by Mayor Bloomberg in 2005, expanded ferry service to Islanders burdened with the second longest average commute in the nation. Perhaps most importantly, he has displayed legislative pragmatism and established himself as a centrist able to work with more conservative colleagues – no small feat considering he is the only Democratic Councilmember from Staten Island. (Interestingly, of the three Republicans in the 51-member Council, two are from Staten Island.)

By all accounts, McMahon is veteran legislator who has achieved considerable influence in the Council – though, if you know anything about the policy skills of the typical, ahem, Councilmember, that might not be saying a whole lot. The intellectual curiosity of the Council notwithstanding, McMahon has precisely the type of qualifications you would want of a prospective Congressman for Staten Island – and that is something it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Harrison to overcome.

Not surprisingly, McMahon has enjoyed the perks of being the front-runner.

He has a vast fundraising advantage. Through August 20, McMahon had raised $717,124 and spent $304,061; Harrison had raised just $201,485 and spent $162,656.

He has been endorsed by virtually every elected official in NY, as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Staten Island Advance – neither of which traditionally pick candidates in primaries.

And in a recent poll by ABC News, 64% of registered Democrats favor McMahon, while only 18% support Harrison.

Though primaries are notoriously captive to the idiosyncrasies of the small number of voters who turn out for them, it is hard to imagine a McMahon defeat.

(To be fair, Harrison does have one important edge: on Facebook, he has 107 friends to McMahon’s 64.)

Yet the fact remains that many of the same voters who support McMahon will also be casting ballots for Obama come November – a candidate whose inexperience for the presidency is largely analogous to Harrison’s inexperience for Congress. But absent once-in-a-generation oratorical skills, it would seem Harrison’s best bet for a future in government is to follow McMahon’s career trajectory and run for City Council in 2009, when many seats are term-limited.

In the end, Harrison is the unfortunate victim of political opportunism. But politics, fundamentally, is about equality, not fairness. McMahon has paid his dues in local government and has earned his shot at the big time.

You can feel sorry for Harrison. You can applaud his effort. But, if you’re anything like most Staten Islanders, you just don’t have to vote for him.

If it makes you feel any better, perhaps you could offer him a glass of warm milk.


2 responses to “Profiles in Courage: Steven Harrison takes on the Republicans (and the Democrats, too)

  1. polisciafterparty

    Wow. Well done B-Crat.

    I almost feel as if this little site isn’t a popular enough venue for that kind of writing, but so long as you’re providing it, we will take it. It deserves to be seen! Our readership is gradually increasing, too.

    If you don’t mind, I’ll do a little advertising on the SILive forums. They’re obsessed with the McMahon/Harrison clash.

    – Legal Eagle

  2. See, sometimes i feel that we’re too stuffy on this silly blog to leave plain old comments like “that made me pee my pants while reading it” … and that makes me sad. lol that was hilarious! i can imagine you saying, “perhaps you could offer him a glass of warm milk”… and i’m laughing so hard i may have woken up my housemates. whoopsie! lol =D

    double agent

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