Gay Democrat Goes for Broke in Staten Island
It's the week before election day, and Staten Island's first openly gay candidate for statewide office is winning over a room full of Rotarians.
"I know many of you in this room are Republican, and I'm not going to party bash here — except for maybe the Marijuana Party," said Democrat Matt Titone, causing several members of his audience to drop their forkfuls of tortellini primavera and throw their heads back in earnest, open-mouthed laughter.
Titone, a lawyer from a prominent political family whose first run for office is unexpectedly turning out to be one of the city's most competitive races, grins and waits for the guffaws to die down before launching into a wonky but persuasive exposition of why Republican Senate majority leader Joe Bruno's leadership is bad for Staten Island.
(Titone works the Columbus Day parade on Staten Island. Photo via titone2006.com)
"Joe Bruno does not want our tax money to come back to us," he said, concluding a litany of ways that upstate powerbrokers are shortchanging New York City in everything from education to transportation.
Titone's message has particular resonance here in the 24th Senate District, which has been represented by the same person for half a century. Republican state senator John Marchi surprised members of both parties by announcing his retirement this spring, capping the career of the nation's longest-serving legislator at 52 years.
The retirement also helped throw the Republicans' narrow state senate majority into play for the first time in decades. Before a catering hall full of avowed Republicans who have been voting for Marchi longer than he's been alive, the 45-year-old Titone boldly sells the possibility of a leadership change, arguing that busting up the current power structure of "three men in the room" is the only way to reform the most dysfunctional legislature in the country.
"If not even John Marchi could do it, how can you expect anyone other than a Democrat to?" Titone asks.
The message seems to sink in. After the luncheon, several Republicans and longtime Marchi voters say they're planning to back the upstart Democrat over his main rival, Andrew Lanza, the Republican city councilmember endorsed by Marchi himself.
"Even though I'm Republican, I vote independently," says Richard Cibelli, 74, who says he pulled the lever for Marchi for years but now wants a change.
Another Republican, Jack Furnani, 63, has a similar voting record but is now planning to vote for Titone. "He has some good ideas," he says.
But if the message has won over some Republicans, it hasn't convinced the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, whose members have yet to offer Titone any support outside of the moral variety.
The committee, which has far less money than its Republican counterpart, is focusing on a six-year plan to retake the Senate. Sticking to that plan means ignoring all races outside of Andrea Stewart-Cousins' challenge to Republican incumbent Nick Spano in Westchester, and the Trunzo-Dahroug race on Long Island, Titone says.
While he doesn't fault party leaders for not being prepared to back him financially, he is disappointed they haven't been able to stray from their original plan now that, as he said, "the goalposts have changed." Unending bad news from Iraq and Mark Foley's page scandal have created great expectations for widespread Democratic victories at the national level on Tuesday, and some of this Democratic optimism has been spilling over into state races in ways few predicted six months ago.
(For God and country, etc. Photo via titone2006.com)
At the time of writing, Titone has $162,000 in the bank, and his campaign manager, Mike Ryan, says he plans to win the race for "under $200,000." Lanza's campaign filings exceed $700,000. The imbalance is obvious to anyone driving down the artery of Hylan Boulevard, where the bright red signs bearing Lanza's name are plastered against a fiery backdrop of autumn leaves, and not a sign for his rival is in sight. People interviewed in the ShopRite parking lots said they have been getting mailings from Lanza on a daily basis.
Yet Titone exudes the elation of an underdog who has suddenly caught the scent of potential victory.
Two of the four people working his headquarters last Thursday were blood relatives (his mother was making phone calls while he sister organized campaign materials), Republicans and Democrats alike have been coming in to volunteer on the weekends, and busloads of Stonewall Democrats are arriving from Manhattan to campaign for the trailblazing candidate.
"In the beginning, it was not even a whisper, not even on the map," he says. He had agreed last spring to run as "a name on the ballot" against Marchi, and was as shocked as anybody when a week after he said yes, the longtime incumbent announced he was retiring. He then had to decide if he wanted to sign up for a real campaign in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans but the Republicans win anyway.
"It was an agonizing decision," he said. "I wasn't sure I wanted to get sucked into public life."
Ever since, Titone has been campaigning door-to-door full time. "I'm on my third pair of shoes," he says. "We haven't done any polling, but the Republicans have, and the rumor is, they're scared."
Any fear circulating in the headquarters that Lanza shares with Congressman Vito Fossella and other Staten Island Republican candidates is masked by the constant motion and Alex P. Keaton-esque enthusiasm of the unusually young campaign staff.
Call the campaign headquarters, and you're likely to get 20-year-old Brendan Lantry on the phone. As president of Richmond County Young Republicans, he's been in charge of rounding up 40 high school and college students to bundle packets of flyers and make door-to-door literature drops for a number of candidates over the last few days.
"Of course, we're going to be focusing more on Lanza, given the race that it is," said Lantry, a wholesome-looking kid sporting a jacket embroidered with an impressive "Lanza for State Senate" logo.
Like his opponent, Lanza is handsome, Italian American, and in his 40s. He arrives looking breathless.
"It's going well," he says. "I've been out every day, talking to the people. I like to campaign in supermarket parking lots. I can you tell what's on sale at every supermarket."
Lanza begins to recite the many things he has done for Staten Island during his five years in the City Council. The list is impressive: getting a fourth police precinct on the island, more parkland, and the first-of-its kind soccer complex, while saving 42 acres for parks and 16 acres for schools in a Charlestown development.
Although supported in name and dollar by Bruno, Lanza tries to make a case that he can be part of changing the culture in Albany by pointing to his disagreements with Mayor Bloomberg and Staten Island borough president James Molinaro that have cost him politically.
Lanza, one of the council's three Republican members, says he paid a political price for voting against the mayor's property tax hike, but since then, the two Republicans have seemed to patch things up. Bloomberg's glowing endorsement leads the list on Lanza's website, and the mayor was scheduled to campaign with him on the island on Friday.
Overdevelopment is the biggest issue in Staten Island, and Lanza is sure to score points for working with the mayor to bring rapid downzoning to the island in recent years. But Lanza's campaign filings show many contributions from developers, and Titone alleges that Lanza received a check from developers connected to NASCAR — a recent hearing over its proposed track on the island ended in a riot — which the Republican returned only after news stories were written about it. Both candidates claim to oppose the track, although Titone's opposition has been more qualified at times.
Outside the ShopRite that's walking distance from both campaign headquarters, a steady stream of self-described Republicans — and one Democrat who winced and said she didn't know who was running — wheeled carts to hulking SUVs. Both candidates have campaigned here in recent days, but it's clear Lanza has made the bigger impression.
"He seems like an up-and-up guy," says security guard Fred Veit, 53. He says he'd describe himself as a Democrat, but voted for Marchi in the past and planned to vote for Lanza this time around for a very specific reason.
"I collect hats," he says. "I have over 400 in my collection. When he found this out, he ran across the street and got me a hat.
"He seems like a nice guy, but he gave me the hat," he continues. "That's the most important thing."