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Staten Island GOP Council Recount Pits Trump Fan Against Moderate Party Favorite

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

A manual recount began Wednesday in a Staten Island Republican City Council primary contest between two candidates separated by 42 votes — and markedly different approaches to politics.

Marko Kepi, who took 3,576 of the 7,194 votes cast, is a Trump-loving upstart who has blasted his moderate rival and local GOP favorite David Carr as a party hack.

Kepi, a Marine reservist, is hoping he’ll be carried into office by the same slim rightward momentum that earned disgraced former Rep. Vito Fossella the GOP borough president nomination.

Fossella beat party-backed Councilmember Steven Matteo — Carr’s current boss — by a slender margin after an eleventh-hour endorsement by former President Donald Trump.

Kepi made a splash with his almost mono-focus on crime, a video showing him stopping a mugging and his claims that his fellow Albanian Americans were the victims of a voter-suppression campaign.

“As long as [Carr’s] been working for elected officials, nothing has been getting better. Everything has been getting worse,” Kepi, a former staffer for ex-Brooklyn State Sen. Marty Golden, told THE CITY.

David Carr, left, chief of staff to Councilmember Steve Matteo, right, is running for his boss’ seat.
David Carr, left, chief of staff to Councilmember Steve Matteo, right, is running for his boss’ seat.
David Carr/Facebook

The more lowkey Carr agreed that public safety was the campaign’s top issue and stressed his support for law enforcement on the campaign trail, calling for more cops and the restoration of qualified immunity for officers.

But he also pitched himself to voters as a capable candidate who’d be able to deliver for constituents due to his experience as chief of staff to Matteo.

“I really got a master class in government…. he’s really kind of set the gold standard for constituent service and ombudsmanship for City Hall,” Carr said of Matteo. “He really does it the way I think it should be done, which is a 24/7 job.”

Carr dismissed attacks from Kepi calling him an insider.

“I believe in working for my community whether that’s on the government end, trying to make government services run better or fighting for Staten Island’s fair share,” Carr said.

The Fossella Connection

In the last month of the campaign, Kepi filmed himself after chasing a young man who allegedly grabbed his fiancée’s purse.

He later held a news conference in front of a Staten Island police precinct with Fossella, detailing the incident to reporters.

While there weren’t formal cross-endorsements between Kepi and Fossella, their campaigns worked together at times.

Kepi paid for digital Facebook ads highlighting Trump’s Fossella endorsement. One had a banner that read: “Support the law and order team.” Another blared “Vote Kepi and Fossella.”

Former Staten Island Congressman Vito Fossella speaks at a June 2018 get out the vote rally in Bloomfield.
Former Staten Island Congressman Vito Fossella speaks at a June 2018 get out the vote rally in Bloomfield.
Clifford Michel/THE CITY

Fossella’s surge has shown local Republicans that the former president has staying power even in races for offices that seemingly have little to do with national politics.

“It’s silly when we nationalize these local races for political office,” said Peter Giunta, who supported Carr and serves on the Staten Island Republican Party’s executive committee. “If anything, it further hurts people’s ability to understand what the position actually entails.”

A spokesperson for Kepi’s campaign and a source close to Carr’s campaign said that the manual recount could wrap up anywhere between Thursday and Sunday.

But there’s a good chance that won’t be the final word on the race.

Carr’s campaign filed a preemptive lawsuit reserving its right to challenge results after accusing Kepi of faking absentee ballots. The city Board of Elections asked the state and federal authorities to investigate.

Kepi filed his own lawsuit afterwards claiming that Carr and the city’s Board of Elections were engaging in voter suppression since many of the absentee ballots were from voters of Albanian descent.

The winner would face Democrat Sal Albanese, who is hoping to return to the Council a quarter-century after his last term.

Malliotakis Influence Also Felt

The Staten Island Republican Party typically has a robust get-out-the-vote effort and has been able to unite to stave off unwanted challenges. Case in point: when ex-Rep. Michael Grimm attempted to take back his old congressional seat from a GOP incumbent in 2018 after spending months in prison.

But the party’s influence is on shaky grounds these days.

Then-Congressional candidate Nicole Malliotakis poses with Rudy Giuliani after receiving his endorsement, Sept. 14, 2020.
Then-Congressional candidate Nicole Malliotakis poses with Rudy Giuliani after receiving his endorsement, Sept. 14, 2020.
Nicole Malliotakis/Facebook

An emerging key, if polarizing, figure in the local party is Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-Staten Island, Brooklyn), who endorsed Carr. Yet, she also withheld her support from Matteo in his contentious primary race.

After Matteo conceded, she quickly backed Fossella, who dropped out of politics not long after a 2008 DUI arrest in Virginia led to the revelation that he had a second family in the Beltway.

As THE CITY recently reported, Malliotakis, who voted against both the House’s January 6th commission and certifying the presidential election results, could face a tough re-election campaign next year.

Money from national groups is already flowing into the swing-seat battleground. She could face a rematch against one-term ex-Rep. Max Rose, a moderate Democrat, though redistricting could make for a more liberal electorate.

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