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How Trump could break New York City’s last Republican bastion

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — For once, New York City’s “forgotten borough” is not being forgotten — at least not by Donald Trump. It’s the only one of the five where Trump will hold a large-scale event, and local Republicans are loving the energy (and money) “Mr. Trump” brings along.

Before Trump announced he’d speak at Richmond County Republicans’ Lincoln Day Brunch, officials said they couldn’t give tickets away to Sunday’s event. But rumor spread last weekend that Trump would appear, and by Tuesday, all 950 seats were sold — for $150 a piece.

“You don’t know what we went through to get these tickets,” said Linda Neri, a second-generation Italian immigrant who was practically bouncing up and down with excitement in a neighbor’s home on the South Shore. “I haven’t voted in so long because it’s crooked. When Trump was in, I said, ‘I gotta vote this year.’”

The mostly white, middle- and working-class Republican voters here have embraced the brash, Queens-born mogul as a hometown hero. So have some of the top GOP officials on the island, including Councilman Joe Borelli, who’s become a go-to Trump surrogate on national television, and Richmond County GOP chairman John Antoniello.

But even as they ride the wave, party leaders are casting a wary eye to the future, fearful that the dividends paid by embracing Trump now could be outweighed by future losses, particularly at a time when New York City’s last Republican bastion is growing more diverse — and less conservative.

It’s a picture of an island experiencing a transition similar to the one facing America as a whole.

The further south you drive from the Staten Island Ferry terminal (and, to be clear, most people here drive), the deeper you travel into Trump territory. The blue-collar, Roman Catholic, older white Republicans (and some conservative Democrats) who grew up on the South Shore of “The Rock” feel that the corrupt, liberal governments in Manhattan, Albany and Washington just want to take their tax dollars and their guns while doing nothing about the illegal immigration and radical Islamic terrorism that threaten their suburban idyll.

It’s said here that if you’re not a cop, you’re related to one (the same goes for firefighters), and many on the island are sick after breathing in toxic air at Ground Zero. That’s another reason for Trump’s support in a community that’s still angry about the national perception created by the videotaped death of Eric Garner in an officer’s chokehold. As the country debates policing reform, Trump has come down firmly on the side of law enforcement.

But that familiar vision of Staten Island no longer exists on its North Shore, where the borough’s first black elected official, Democrat Debi Rose, was voted into a City Council seat in 2009. The area also includes the Staten Island Ferry terminal and has a slightly more urban, sometimes even hip, feel than other parts of the decidedly suburban borough: A major waterfront revitalization project will include “MRKTPL,” touted as “Staten Island’s first artisanal food hall” and set to open in 2017. It also boasts the largest Sri Lankan and Liberian populations outside those countries; Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf drew 700 people to a high school auditorium here as part of her reelection campaign in 2010.

And Republicans who need to win elections beyond Staten Island’s South Shore have opted to keep their distance from Trump. Rep. Dan Donovan, whose U.S. House district encompasses Staten Island and a sliver of Brooklyn, represents an area where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. He has praised John Kasich, as has Staten Island Borough President James Oddo.

State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who represents a swing district in the middle of the island, had been a state chair for Marco Rubio, and now, she says, she can’t decide whom to vote for, much less endorse.

(No top politicians POLITICO spoke with have anything nice to say about Ted Cruz, who added injury to his “New York Values” insult when he opposed Sandy aid and a bill to pay medical expenses for 9/11 responders.)

Donovan took pains to say he’d support the Republican nominee — the Never Trump movement is virtually nonexistent here — but swing voters who “don’t trust Hillary Clinton,” he said, “might have a more difficult time voting for Mr. Trump or Ted Cruz” than Kasich.

Asked about areas where he splits with Trump, Donovan reels off a litany: the ban on Muslims, the rhetoric about women, the mass deportations. Donovan is noncommittal on the border wall — a Trump proposal frequently cited by his fans on the Island — saying he’d leave border security “to the experts.”

Other Republicans are content to ride the Trump wave as far as they can. Councilman Borelli, one of just three Republicans on the 51-member New York City Council, came out for Trump afer the Super Tuesday primaries. Now the 33-year-old is Trump’s New York co-chairman.

“If you’re in Staten Island, you have the pleasure of having Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo and Mayor [Bill] de Blasio trip over themselves to be progressive,” said Borelli, pointing to pushes to raise the minimum wage or build high-density housing in an area blanketed by one- and two-family homes and broad parklands.

“I’m not surprised that people are attracted to maybe the loudest —- if not the most ideologically conservative — the loudest conservative in the race,” he said.

But even Borelli concedes the billionaire is an imperfect candidate.

“I did have to confront the fact that a lot of people on Staten Island may disagree with some of the things he said, including myself,” Borelli said. “That said, I still believe he’s the best candidate in the race, and I believe my constituents are going to back him overwhelmingly, so at the end of the day it was the right decision, I think.”

The role of Trump surrogate has certainly raised Borelli’s profile: He’s had to head into Manhattan almost every morning this week to talk up Trump on CNN. But Borelli, who has not ruled out a future run for higher office, acknowledges that his early Trump support could come back to haunt him if he runs beyond the South Shore: “Any decision one makes in politics has positives and negatives,” he said.

Lifelong Staten Island resident Sean Cosgriff, who supports Trump and Borelli, was more direct: Borelli “put his neck on the line” with the Trump endorsement, Cosgriff said. “Nationally, people think Trump is a nutjob,” he said. “Hopefully it doesn’t backfire on him.”

Staten Island’s split over embracing Trump mirrors a divide in the national Republican Party. Trump’s campaign is built on policy positions and rhetoric that energize a core group of voters who tend to be older, working-class and overwhelmingly white. Many top party leaders, however, fear that brand also limits the party’s appeal with moderates, women and minorities. If true, that’s a poor recipe for national success, and party leaders fear that unless they broaden their nonwhite appeal, they’ll risk relegation to a permanent second tier of national politics.

On Staten Island, the demographics tell a similar story. The borough remains New York City’s whitest at 64 percent, but that’s changing. Since 1990, the population has grown by more than a quarter, to more than 473,000, while the white population has shrunk both proportionally and in raw terms.

“It’s almost like a tale of two cities within Staten Island,” said Rose, the North Shore Democratic councilwoman.

Differences between the two communities threaten to come to a head Sunday, when Trump will speak at the brunch at the Hilton Garden Inn. There’s high potential for chaos outside amid protests. Municipal and local faith leaders are proud that the protests and counterprotests related to Garner stayed peaceful, but the island is a powder keg.

“We’ve worked really hard in my district to build bridges, so [Trump’s] rhetoric is inflammatory and it could keep the wound open,” Rose said.

Both Democratic presidential candidates have sought to capitalize on the controversy: Sen. Bernie Sanders has an ad featuring Garner’s daughter Erica, while Clinton touts the endorsement of his mother.

Cosgriff, a retired police officer, called the Sanders ad “disgusting” and said that while he doesn’t have $150 to spend on the Trump brunch, he might come to show his support outside in the face of the anti-Trump protesters. He likes that the candidate keeps showing up despite the inevitable outrage outside.

“Trump’s got guts,” Cosgriff said. “Whether they like him or not, he’ll go to Detroit and stand with those knuckleheads. You get Democrats that will not even go.”

What the protesters demonizing the police after the Garner incident don’t get, Cosgriff said is that “the majority of the civil service workers that died in Sept. 11 are from here.”

That explains how Donovan, who became a national villain after failing to persuade a grand jury to indict the police officer who killed Garner, coasted to victory months later in a special election.

To an outside observer, Donovan’s election seems improbable both because of his role in the Garner case and because his GOP predecessor, Republican Rep. Michael Grimm, resigned after pleading guilty to felony tax charges. (Grimm earned additional Washington notoriety by an on-video incident in which he threatened to throw a reporter off a U.S. Capitol balcony.) But locals see it differently: Grimm, who will get out of prison next month, won reelection after being indicted, and many here still maintain that he was unfairly targeted by the Obama administration.

Before Grimm it was Vito Fossella, whose name still comes up as a possible candidate for open seats even though he retired from politics not long after a 2008 DUI arrest in Alexandria, Virginia, led to an admission that he had a second family in the Washington area.

Still, there signs of turning tides are everywhere. In the race to replace Donovan as district attorney, one of only two boroughwide elections held in Staten Island, North Shore voters turned out in force and elected Michael McMahon, a Democrat.

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