Ex-Rep. Vito Fossella’s last-minute, game-changing endorsement from former President Donald Trump in the Staten Island borough president GOP primary got a paid, targeted Facebook boost from an unexpected source: conservative cable news outlet Newsmax.
Like many other news organizations, Newsmax Media Inc. regularly spends money to promote its stories on the social media platform.
But Newsmax’s $25,000 expenditure for its piece touting the Trump endorsement in the local race stood out, given that it was the only of the cable outfit’s 54 ad buys last month that targeted a single state — New York — leading up to the city’s June 22 primary election.
Newsmax’s paid promotion for its story about Fossella, a former City Council and Congress member who once hosted a political reality show on the channel, doesn’t need to be reported to the city Campaign Finance Board, an agency spokesperson said.
“It’s such a big loophole to drive through,” said Richard Flanagan, a professor of political science at CUNY’s College of Staten Island. “But it sure is funny business, that’s for sure.”
Fossella, who has largely stayed out of the public spotlight over the past decade, stunned the Staten Island GOP on Tuesday when absentee ballots gave him a slim 290-vote lead over Councilmember Steven Matteo, who quickly conceded.
The upset came after Fossella’s low-key campaign blew past several of the city’s Campaign Finance Board deadlines to detail spending.
Fossella, who apparently benefited from an 11th-hour Trump robocall, has only reported spending $113 for processing credit card fees, despite raising tens of thousands of dollars since launching his campaign in mid-March.
Newsmax’s Facebook spending can be found on the platform’s ad library in the “Issues, Elections or Politics” category.
The June 20 story — headlined “Trump Endorses Fossella for Staten Island Borough President Job” — highlighted the oddity of the former president getting involved in a local race and noted that “Matteo has criticized Trump in the past.”
The article also pointed out that ex-Borough President Jim Molinaro, a local GOP luminary, endorsed Fossella, too.
A Big Impression
The promoted news story’s ad package garnered at least 350,000 impressions in the final days before the election and was mostly shown to people 35 and over who live in New York. Meanwhile, Fossella’s campaign hasn’t reported paying for any social media advertising.
Newsmax has spent $4.26 million on some 3,600 digital ads promoting its stories on Facebook since May 2018, according to the platform’s ad library.
Still, the Fossella ad buy was higher than average for Newsmax: The media company spent $176,970 from June 19 to June 25, according to figures from Facebook’s ad library. That makes an average purchase for a package of ads about $17,700. The average spending for June 24 to June 30 was $15,700.
Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy hitched his star to Trump’s presidency and has provided a platform for the former chief executive, who has been banned from Facebook and Twitter.
The seven-year-old cable news network interviewed Fossella on-air several times last month and ran a story about former Mayor Rudy Giuliani endorsing him. The network also reported on Fossella blasting Mayor Bill de Blasio over crime.
Fossella posted the Newsmax story on his campaign’s Facebook page, but didn’t pay to promote it with paid ads. Meanwhile, even a GOP City Council candidate running in the borough, Marine veteran Marko Kepi, tried to capitalize on the Trump news by buying Facebook ads that showed he supported the ex-president’s preferred candidate.
“You know with Trump, the bat signal goes up and everyone comes running on the Republican side,” said Flanagan, author of “Staten Island: Conservative Bastion in a Liberal City.”
“It’s really remarkable how quickly it all came down,” he added.
Fossella’s campaign didn’t return calls requesting comment. Neither did Newsmax’s public relations team.
A Second Family
Fossella, who was initially elected to the Council in the early 1990s, skipped running for a seventh term in the U.S. House of Representatives after a 2008 DUI arrest in Virginia led to the revelation that he had a second family in the Beltway.
He has since apparently reconciled with his wife on Staten Island.
As THE CITY reported last month, Fossella has variously worked in recent years for a bill-collecting firm and as a registered foreign agent representing the governments of Taiwan, Somalia and Morocco, as well as a group of Polish weapons manufacturers.
Fossella’s campaign has apparently put up signs across the southern and Mid-Island areas of the borough — including a billboard near the Outerbridge Crossing — without reporting it to the Campaign Finance Board.
But Matt Sollars, a CFB spokesperson, noted that Newsmax’s Facebook spending didn’t fall under the board’s purview. “Our rules protect the rights of organizations that produce news stories or commentary and do not cover expenditures to publish or promote their work,” he said.
Fossella was in a three-way race with Matteo and former GOP chair Leticia Remauro for the Republican nod. The nominee will now likely face presumed Democratic primary winner Mark Murphy, the son of former longtime Staten Island Rep. John Murphy.
The winner of the November election will replace term-limited Borough President James Oddo, a Republican and former boss of Matteo. The GOP has held the borough presidency in Staten Island for the last three decades.
Meanwhile, Trump still seems to be engaged in the local race.
“Vito will be representing the greatest people on Earth, and he will never let you down,” Trump said in a statement on Tuesday. “I love Staten Island!”