Why Staten Island Democrats Aren't Talking About Eric Garner

The Republican district attorney from the Garner case is running for the House, but Democrats don't plan to make his role a campaign issue.

National Democrats have been talking for months about the case of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died this summer after being put in a chokehold by New York City police. And the protests only grew louder after Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan declined to indict the officers involved in the death.

But now, after Republicans have pulled Donovan to be their candidate to run in a special election for an open House seat, New York Democrats say they have no plans to make the Garner case an issue in their campaign to defeat him.

That's because the case may have resonated nationally, but Donovan isn't running in a national election—he's running in Staten Island, where voters see the Garner case much differently.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted Jan. 7-14 and released on Thursday, 74 percent of Staten Island respondents approved of the way the police are doing their job, while only 26 percent disapprove—a significantly more positive view than the rest of the city holds. (The second-highest approval rate came from Queens, at 57 percent.) In the same poll, 56 percent of Staten Island respondents said they considered the police's actions "understandable" in Garner's death, while no more than 30 percent of respondents in any other borough considered Garner's death understandable.

And so Democrats have no interest in putting Donovan on trial for his handling of the Garner case. "I don't think the race is a national referendum," said John Gulino, chairman of the Staten Island Democratic Party. "There are many, many issues affecting this congressional district. I'm hoping this becomes about all of the issues. I don't want that to be the end all and be all."

Gulino said the district's job losses, transportation shortcomings, and infrastructure issues after Hurricane Sandy deserve more attention in the special election to fill former Rep. Michael Grimm's vacant seat, despite national reporters and pundits predicting that Donovan's role in the Garner case could give Democrats an advantage.

It's another reminder that politics work differently in New York's 11th District, which covers Staten Island and a slice of southern Brooklyn. In November, the district's voters reelected Grimm, despite the fact that he was facing 20 federal indictments and had become a beltway punchline. Grimm resigned earlier this month after pleading guilty to felony tax evasion, but only after winning election in November thanks to a successful Staten-Island-against-the-world-themed campaign.

"Traditional campaigns on Staten Island are about how everybody hates us and doesn't understand us," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Manhattan-based Democratic strategist. "The best way to elect Dan Donovan is to make Eric Garner the issue. It would do [Democrats] as much good to send him boxes of chocolate candies and send checks to his campaign."

A date has not been set for the special election to replace Grimm, though Republicans are pressing Gov. Andrew Cuomo to declare one soon. Democrats are still settling on their candidate, although state Assemblyman Michael Cusick is the apparent front-runner. (Cusick did not respond to a request for comment.)

Republicans insist that Donovan's role in the Garner case won't be a liability.

"This is a right-of-center, pro-cop, pro-civil-service community that has the most cops and firemen living in it in the entire city of New York," said Vincent Ignizio, a city councilman and member of the Staten Island Republican Party. "Notwithstanding the national experts who want to tell us what issues will determine the race, Staten Island residents and Brooklynites will determine which issues are most important."

If the Garner case becomes a central topic in the special election, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio would be put under the microscope as much as the NYPD, which would help Republicans even further. When asked if they approved of how de Blasio is handling crime, only 28 percent of Staten Island residents approved, and 67 percent disapproved.

Monday will be an early test of how the topic affects the race, as Al Sharpton commemorates Martin Luther King Jr. Day by holding a vigil at the site where Garner died. If politicized, events like these could further hurt Democrats; the same Quinnipiac poll found that only 13 percent of Staten Island residents have a favorable view of Sharpton while 78 percent have an unfavorable view.

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this article