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The Race Where Race Didn't Matter

District Attorney Dan Donovan celebrates after his win in a special election to Congress from Staten Island, N.Y.
Julie Jacobson
District Attorney Dan Donovan celebrates after his win in a special election to Congress from Staten Island, N.Y.

The Staten Island prosecutor who was at the heart of the investigation into the death of Eric Garner at police hands last year was overwhelmingly elected to Congress on Tuesday night.

In the special election in New York's 11th District to replace disgraced former Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., Republican District Attorney Daniel Donovan cruised to a nearly 20-point win over the Democratic nominee, New York City Councilman Vincent Gentile.

Donovan was the heavy favorite in the GOP-leaning district, despite the controversy that surrounded him after the death of Garner, the 43-year-old African-American man who died last July in a police chokehold. Garner was under suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.

His death was captured on video and added to the tension across the country after deadly standoffs between police and black men in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland (and, since then, Baltimore this past month). Donovan impaneled the grand jury that ultimately declined to press charges against the police officers in the incident. Protests and riots in New York City and beyond followed after the decision.

Despite the controversy, Democrats didn't use the Garner case to attack Donovan. That's because in the working-class, police-heavy borough trying to leverage the case could have backfired. National Democrats didn't play in the special election, and Gentile was heavily outraised by Donovan.

Democrats have a glimmer of hope in trying to knock off Donovan during the regular 2016 general election, though, when they anticipate former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton will be atop the ticket. President Obama narrowly won the district, which includes all of Staten Island and a sliver of Brooklyn, in 2012. Four years earlier, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won there.

The 11th district and Staten Island are the most conservative of the city's boroughs, and that's largely how Grimm — who was under a 20-count indictment last November for charges ranging from tax fraud to perjury — was still able to win re-election. He eventually pleaded guilty to one felony charge as part of a plea deal and resigned his House seat in January.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.