Singular election lures political junkies to Staten Island National names visit, but local voters impressed by pungency of landfill

November 04, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- You know your congressional race is a big deal, Vito Fossella was saying this weekend, when Sonny Bono spends Saturday night at a banquet hall in Staten Island.

The only congressional race this Election Day is here in New York's 13th District, and Washington elite have arrived in New York City's smallest, whitest and most Republican borough in force. In the past week, President Clinton, former President George Bush, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and even the singer-turned-Republican congressman Bono have put in appearances in the district, along with enough political consultants and party hacks to fill the Staten Island ferry.

"This is the only election in an off year for Washington political junkies, so a lot of them end up here," says Fossella, a 32-year-old rookie New York City councilman who is the Republican nominee for the House seat. Pollsters say he is leading a close race.

"All the Washington people say this is a preview of what next year's congressional elections will be like," says Fossella's Democratic opponent, Eric Vitaliano, a 15-year veteran of New York's fractious State Assembly. "But Staten Island doesn't need campaigns like this, and America certainly doesn't want elections like this."

Other notable contests around the country include: gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey; mayoral races in New York, Atlanta, Miami and Houston; and the attempt to repeal a law permitting assisted suicide in Oregon.

Molinari's district

All the attention from outside New York has served to nationalize this race in a quirky district, which was represented by Republican Susan Molinari until she quit in midterm to become a perky Saturday morning TV show host.

Molinari gave the keynote speech at last year's Republican National Convention and was well-known across the country, but the most important issues in her district are decidedly local. On the campaign trail this fall, Vitaliano and Fossella have faced few questions about the federal budget; voters are more likely to ask about the Fresh Kills Landfill or the $7 one-way toll on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

But the candidates could hardly afford to ignore the visitors: They bring cash for a battle that has cost over $2 million. The Republican National Committee has spent nearly $1 million on TV advertisements designed to get around federal election laws by attacking Vitaliano as a liberal without mentioning Fossella, the Republican candidate, by name.

The Democratic National Committee, deep in debt from last year's campaign and various legal bills, has not been able to respond, but several unions have parried the Republicans by giving money to Vitaliano, who has blasted Fos- sella as an acolyte of House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Such attacks may be misplaced since the candidates break most stereotypes about their parties. Vitaliano, the Democrat, opposes abortion and gun control, while Fossella, the Republican, is a self-described moderate who has pushed environmental issues.

But political experts say the outcome will have little to do with policy stands. Fossella's candidacy is seen more as a test of strength for the Republican political machine of Guy V. Molinari, who holds the largely ceremonial job of Staten Island borough president, and is Susan's father. A Molinari has held the Staten Island seat in Congress for more than 20 years, and Guy Molinari, despite a battle with cancer, has campaigned strongly for Fossella.

Today's New York mayoral election will also play a role. If the Republican incumbent, Rudolph W. Giuliani, can turn out large numbers of Republican voters in Staten Island, it will be difficult for Vitaliano to win.

Turnout is key

"The turnout may not have anything to do with who's running for Congress," says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College poll, "but it will end up determining who ends up in Congress."

Even with all the outside money and prominent visitors, polls suggest that the campaign has not captured the borough's attention. Most of the political talk at a candidates' forum yesterday was about a Fossella mass mailing of scratch-and-sniff stickers to Staten Island voters.

The stickers, designed to remind constituents of Fossella's efforts to close the Fresh Kills Landfill, were so pungent that several mail carriers threw up, and had to take the afternoon off.

Pub Date: 11/04/97

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