11th Congressional District voters chose Republican/Conservative/Independence candidate Dan Donovan in Tuesdays’s special election. Will Congressman Donovan remain the “nice guy” that many of his voters chose or adopt the Tea Party Zeitgeist of his new colleagues?
Donovan’s been in politics for 20 years, running and winning three elections for Staten Island District Attorney. He’s well known on Staten Island, especially to Republican voters who generally like him and regard him as a nice guy. I saw that view frequently in covering the campaign. In one instance, as I waited for a Donovan campaign appearance outside of a Staten Island grocery store, a 40-something woman headed to her car asked why I was there, cameras at the ready. Told that Donovan was expected shortly she paused and said “he knew my father. He came to my father’s wake, he’s really nice” before closing her car door and driving away.
That nice guy persona will be tested as Donovan joins a Tea Party-driven House of Representatives. The majority of his Republican conference colleagues hold many harsher views than those expressed by Donovan throughout the campaign. Will Donovan bend and vote with the Republican majority or proceed as a Republican outlier?
Candidate Donovan described himself as the latter, saying that his three elections as District Attorney required the support of Democrats and that “I’ve never governed as a Republican or an independent (sic) or a Conservative. I’ve governed as a public servant.” He went on to say that if “you think some of these things Republicans are doing in Congress are wrong” voters should select him because as a Republican member he’ll be better able to communicate that to the majority.
Donovan’s tone occasionally turned harsher, however, and he seemed content with surrogate vitriol. Donovan smiled and shook his head when Rudy Giuliani laid blame for the assassination of NYPD Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on Bill de Blasio. He avoided a direct answer when I later asked if he shares Giuliani’s view.
While campaigning Donovan frequently mentioned his mother; elderly, suffering from dementia and dependent on Social Security and Medicare. He cited her as proof that he will “protect” those programs, saying that “I don’t know if it needs to be changed.” That’s dramatically different from the “entitlement reform” energy in the House and broadly throughout the Republican Party. His election night speech called for a balanced federal budget and decried “the runaway train of federal spending” and the current $18 trillion of federal debt. While not mentioning Social Security or Medicare, any substantial reduction in the federal deficit and debt without tax increases will require changes in these two enormous programs. It’s unclear how Donovan thinks the two views can be reconciled.
His election night call for controlling that “runaway train of federal spending” was also tempered by calls for, wait for it, federal spending. Donovan argued for transportation spending in Staten Island and Brooklyn and federal subsidies for the national flood insurance program. It’s not shocking that he, like virtually every member of Congress, will support spending in his district. The real test will be reconciling his desire to spend with harsh anti-spending rhetoric and offering a clear and coherent outline of why he’ll support particular spending while opposing other items.
Despite an election night suggestion of repealing Obamacare, with a call for “a healthcare system that actually lowers costs and allows individuals to make their healthcare choices with their doctors, not Washington bureaucrats” Donovan’s typical response to questions on Obamacare included “there’s good parts of Obamacare and there’s bad parts of Obamacare.” That’s a view not widely shared among the House Republicans and, if seriously pursued, will place Donovan outside of the House Republican mainstream. While campaigning he described himself as a “true believer in unions” and declared that the cost of paid family leave “should be on our government.” Those appeared to be genuine expressions, albeit perhaps without much past experience in the deeper policy issues. Those views are also not widely shared among the House Republicans.
Donovan has spent most of his career as a prosecutor and is comfortable discussing his work and the criminal justice system. He’s not nearly as knowledgable or fluent in many other policy areas. While campaigning he glossed over many topics, such as the Senate Iran letter, TPP and minimum wage. While he won’t become expert in many or all of the many issues before the House, he will have to negotiate and vote on them. Will Donovan adopt the harsh views prevalent among House Republicans? If he acts and votes in line with his less orthodox views, will he develop any influence among his colleagues?
Stay tuned as Candidate Donovan becomes Rep. Donovan and begins his time in the House of Representatives.
Update – Election Night Speech & Photos:
A photo gallery from election day, including Donovan’s election night party, is here.
Here are Donovan’s election night remarks. (We’ve omitted a lengthy series of thank-you’s and a moment of silence for Detective Brian Moore.)