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Democratic and GOP Candidates Rage Against the Staten Island Political Machines

Former Marine Marko Kepi campaigns for City Council on Staten Island, June 1, 2021.
Former Marine Marko Kepi campaigns for City Council on Staten Island, June 1, 2021.
Marko Kepi/Facebook

Progressive Democratic and conservative Republican candidates on Staten Island, where support from local party leaders once translated to almost certain victory in primaries, have something in common:

They are running competitive races against machine-backed candidates.

The split, with progressives decrying Trumpism in the borough and conservatives touting their support for the NYPD and their ire for pandemic restrictions, threatens to upend politics in a borough where few historically have bucked the party line.

For the borough’s Republican Party, the nomination for the Mid-Island Council seat has been handed down over the last two decades to the Council member’s chief of staff.

James Oddo worked for then-Councilmember John Fusco before winning the seat. Councilmember Steven Matteo worked for Oddo before succeeding his boss, who became borough president. Now Matteo, who is running for borough president, is backing his chief of staff, David Carr, for the Council job.

But Carr’s path to victory is a lot steeper than Oddo or Matteo’s: he’s facing off against five Republicans, four of whom have access to at least $100,000.

“These guys, they just sit down in the office, do absolutely nothing and then they expect to become elected officials because I’m chief of staff andnow it’s my turn,” Marko Kepi, a conservative Republican running for the seat on a law-and order platform.

Kepi, who waged a bitter Assembly primary last year against a party-backed candidate for a seat that includes the East Shore and parts of Bay Ridge, has out fundraised Carr — $212,465 in public and private dollars compared to $207,176 according to filings.

‘A Growing Family’

For Matteo, the blessing of Oddo and the local GOP hasn’t forestalled a contentious primary. He’s on the ballot with former GOP chairwoman Leticia Remauro, who’s running to his right, and ex-Rep. Vito Fossella, who has been running an unusually low-key campaign.

Remauro won the Conservative Party’s endorsement over Matteo, a line Oddo and his predecessor James P. Molinaro always garnered. That could leave Republicans without a ballot line in the general election that reliably delivers several thousand votes for a seat the GOP has held for 30 years.

The brazen challenges are a major shift from the Staten Island GOP that had enough sway to discourage now-Rep. Malliotakis from running for Congress in 2015 –– and galvanized support for many of Staten Island’s former and current elected officials, including Oddo, Matteo, Fossella and South Shore Councilmember Joe Borelli.

Staten Island Republican Party chairman Anthony Reinhart told THE CITY that a reduction in the petition qualification threshold combined with the city’s generous public campaign financing system and the introduction of ranked choice voting likely led to a surge in candidates.

“We’re a growing family. Ultimately, the voters get to decide who has the best message and vision,” Reinhart said. “As long as Republican candidates continue putting forward a vision for the future, the prospects for the Republican party looks bright.”

‘A Continuation of Service’

Meanwhile, the Staten Island Democratic Party is seeing a similar rebellion in the primary race for borough president, where the handpicked candidate — Mark Murphy, a realtor and son of ex-Staten Island Rep. John Murphy — has become a target of four rivals.

All are activists and one, Lorie Honor, has out fundraised Murphy with $433,460 in public and private dollars compared to his $404,041 in a race that’s turned nasty.

Murphy’s opponents charged he was behind an unsuccessful effort to throw others off the ballot just as his rivals were forming a non-disparagement pact for the campaign at the time. He denied any involvement.

The four Democratic candidates also held a news conference slamming Murphy’s creation of a “Staten Island First” ballot line, which they’ve blasted as Trumpian and a possible point of division in a general election race.

Mark Murphy, a Democrat running for Staten Island Borough President, received the endorsement of the borough’s Democratic delegation on Thursday.
Mark Murphy, a Democrat running for Staten Island Borough President, received the endorsement of the borough’s Democratic delegation on Mar. 6, 2021.
Clifford Michel/ THE CITY

In a further show of unity, three of the candidates — Honor, Cesar Vargas and Radhakrishna Mohan — each pitched in $3,000 for a joint mailer explaining ranked choice voting.

And while Murphy has been endorsed by all of the borough’s Democratic elected officials and SEIU 1199, New York’s biggest union, Honor and Vargas have attracted attention from national groups and figures.

Honor picked up an endorsement from EMILY’s List, a national political group that backs pro-choice candidates, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney. Vargas scored an endorsement from the United Auto Workers.

Honor told THE CITY that she and others are finding that grassroots activism is in sync with the work needed to run a competitive local campaign.

“It’s a continuation of service. I see how effective I can be and I see how effective activism is and what a good fit it is for me,” said Honor, a wine store owner and co-founder of Staten Island Women Who March. “I don’t question my credentials, I didn’t question my ability to fundraise. I didn’t question anything, but the only thing I found interesting was that I was doubted by the establishment.”

A ‘Nontraditional Candidate’

The Democratic party is staying out of a wide open North Shore race for the borough’s only reliably Democratic Council seat, as ranked choice voting is changing the endorsement game. The contest in the borough’s most progressive district has attracted nine hopefuls.

Outgoing Councilmember Debi Rose is backing Selina Grey, a political operative and ally, to replace her.

Local Assemblymember Charles Fall and State Sen. Diane Savino are backing Kamillah Hanks, a nonprofit leader who launched a brash primary challenge to Rose in 2017.

Selina Grey is running for City Council on Staten Island’s north shore.
Selina Grey is running for City Council on Staten Island’s North Shore.
Selina Grey for City Council/Facebook

Fall picked Ranti Ogunleye as his second-choice pick. Ogunleye, whose campaign is run by former students from his time as an educator and head of a Stapleton community center, said matching funds help draw hinto the race.

“I’m not with the Democratic machinery, I’m a nontraditional candidate but it made me more viable,” said Ogunleye. “The truth is the community members know who’s doing the work.”

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