Politics collided with the personal in a particularly devastating way, as Republicans in Brooklyn and Staten Island reeled from the latest disaster to befall them in the 13th Congressional District – the death of congressional candidate Frank Powers.
The Sunset Park-born Powers, 67, died over the weekend of a heart attack, less than a month after being chosen by local GOPers to run for the seat being vacated by Rep. Vito Fossella, who announced his retirement after a DUI arrest led to the revelation that he had a second family in Virginia.
On Thursday, just three days before his death, Powers was seen hobnobbing with borough GOP members during the Brooklyn Republicans’ Lincoln Dinner, where he was singled out as the man who would put the 13th C.D. in their win column.
During the gala at Grand Prospect Hall, Powers chatted with Assembly candidate Bob Capano and others, listening intently as keynote speaker and possible Vice President contender Tom Ridge stumped for Senator John McCain.
Powers’ name was side by side with McCain’s when many talked about victories in November. “We are on the rise,” said Brooklyn Republican Party Chair Craig Eaton on Thursday. “With John McCain, Frank Powers and Bob Capano, we are going to take back seats this November. We’re going to be the party to look at this year.”
Yet not everyone was singing his praises. State Senator Marty Golden described the fight to retain the 13th C.D. as an “uphill battle.” “With Frank Powers running, I have no idea how that is going to shake out,” he said at the time.
Republican leaders — still trying to digest the latest setback in what should have been an easy election with a well-financed and popular candidate – said that, for now, they were not thinking about politics, but were mourning Powers and supporting his family.
“It was quite a shocker for us,” remarked Anthony Xanthakis, vice chairperson of the Staten Island Republican Party. “He was very much a gentleman. It was a pleasure working with him over the years. We’re going to miss him.”
Political plans still had not been made, Xanthakis said on Monday, telling this paper, “The county committee is going to have to get together and select another candidate.”
As to who that might be, Xanthakis said he didn’t know yet. “Out of respect, we’re not really pushing the issue. We’ll find time to get this done. Right now, our major concern is his wife and kids. We’ll find someone qualified and move on. We’re strong out here and can get things done in a fast way.”
Dr. Jamshad Wyne, a Staten Island Republican who had begun an independent bid to win the GOP nomination, also said that the campaign had taken a back seat for now. “My wife and I are not thinking about the race at this moment,” Wyne noted. “Our heart and prayers go to his family. It was such a sad thing.”
Nonetheless, the clock hasn’t stopped on the petitioning period, which began June 3 and ends July 10, leaving the GOP only two weeks to get a new candidate on the ballot.
The easiest scenario for GOPers would be if enough signatures had already been gathered to ensure Powers a spot on the ballot. In that case, existing petitions could be filed, and a committee on vacancies could declare a substitute candidate. However, if that is not the case, the party has to start all over again and gather 1,250 good signatures for a new candidate.
Either way, the party still needs to decide upon a candidate. According to one source within the Staten Island GOP, the party was “revisiting all those we already interviewed,” including such elected officials as District Attorney Dan Donovan, City Councilmembers James Oddo and Vincent Ignizio, and State Senator Andrew Lanza – all of whom have said they will not run for the seat, which includes all of Staten Island and part of southwestern Brooklyn.
Other candidates being considered, according to the Staten Island Advance, include newscaster Lisa Giovinazzo and former Assemblymember Matthew Mirones. Others who may be under consideration include County Clerk Stephen Fiala, former City Councilmember Fred Cerullo and Paul Atanasio, a Brooklyn Conservative Party member who ran for the seat in 1980 against Leo Zefferetti, the last Democrat to hold it.
Golden said Tuesday that he has had conversations “every moment of every day” with political and civic leaders encouraging him to fill the void left behind by Powers’ death. “It would be a great honor,” he said. “If we didn’t have this problem with the State Senate, I would have had a different outlook.”
If in fact the GOP goes with someone with strong name recognition, the Republicans may end up with a more competitive candidate, suggested City Councilmember Vincent Gentile, a Democrat.
“The way I look at it, in the first instance, with Powers, they went with a person who had money at the expense of someone with name recognition,” Gentile told this paper. “If they’re going to forego a candidate with money, they are going to have to have high name recognition, which means they have to convince one of the elected officials to make a run at this. I’m sure calls are going on right now. If they come up with a big name, it may be a worse case scenario for Democrats.”
Nonetheless, the GOP’s apparent inability to field a candidate who is a sure winner has some party members concerned. One Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the situation was, “Not insurmountable, but they can’t sit back and smoke cigars and talk. They have to start doing things.
“The very fact is that they were late to begin with,” the source stressed. “I know people who didn’t get petitions till 10 days or two weeks after the start of the process. This has been disorganized all the way around. Things could have been done a lot better. They definitely don’t want the embarrassment of not being able to field a candidate because they can’t get enough signatures. They also don’t want to mess up the Assembly candidates.”
At the moment, there are two Democratic candidates locked in a primary battle. They are Staten Island City Councilmember Michael McMahon and Brooklynite Stephen Harrison, who ran against Fossella in 2006. In addition, the Independence Party candidate is Carmine Morano, and the Libertarian Party candidate is Susan Overeem, who beat out Powers’ son, Francis “Fran” Powers, for the nod.