RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The death of an unarmed black man is on the minds of voters in New York City where there's a special election next month to fill the seat vacated by Congressman Michael Grimm. He resigned earlier this year after pleading guilty to a tax charge. The district includes Staten Island, where Eric Garner died last year at the hands of a white police officer. WNYC's Brigid Bergin looks at how Garner's death is playing in the race.
BRIGID BERGIN, BYLINE: When police officers attempted to arrest Eric Garner last July for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, video of his final moments went viral.
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ERIC GARNER: I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.
BERGIN: In that video, Garner repeats 11 times, I can't breathe. It was one of 60 pieces of evidence Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan presented to a grand jury. The proceedings were closed. The grand jury decided not to charge the police officer seen with his arm around Garner's neck. That decision sparked weeks of protests against police brutality and excessive force. But Bob O'Keefe, who lives on Staten Island's South Shore, was troubled for a different reason. His son is a secret service agent.
O'KEEFE: I have a problem with people when they don't pay attention to the law. If a policeman comes up to me and says stand up, put your hands on your head, whatever, you do what he tells you until you get things straightened out.
BERGIN: DA Donovan is now the Republican candidate for Congress. And he's counting on support from voters like O'Keefe, which might be why he hasn't been saying much about the Garner case.
DISTRICT ATTORNEY DAN DONOVAN: I don't think it's an issue at all.
BERGIN: And as it turns out, Donovan's Democratic rival isn't seizing on it either. Vincent Gentile is a Democratic City Council member from Brooklyn.
VINCENT GENTILE: Eric Garner's death shouldn't be bandied about.
BERGIN: Over breakfast at a Brooklyn diner, Gentile says this district, including all of Staten Island and a small edge of Brooklyn, would rather hear about raising the federal minimum wage or building a new light rail. He was the grand jury transcript unsealed, but he's very careful not to campaign on the case.
GENTILE: To use it as a political ramrod to try and garner votes is not what people want.
BERGIN: Experts say Gentile dances around the issue because Staten Island is home to such a large number of cops and firefighters. Richard Flanagan chairs the political science department at the College of Staten Island.
RICHARD FLANAGAN: So I think the fear for the Gentile campaign is that they will mobilize a backlash against any criticism of Donovan for the grand jury decision.
BERGIN: Flanagan also says since this is a special election, it will boil down to which campaign gets out more voters.
TAMMY BROWN: Excuse me. Hello. Are you registered to vote?
DIANA TORRES: I am.
BERGIN: Gentile's only shot at a victory means winning his home turf in Brooklyn and getting out a large number of voters on Staten Island's more diverse North Shore. It's where Garner died and where Tammy Brown stops to talk to Diana Torres.
BROWN: OK, so you know there's a special election May 5?
TORRES: No, that I didn't know.
BROWN: Oh, OK, you know that Donovan is running? Donovan, the DA.
BROWN: Dan Donovan, he was intricate - he was intricately involved with the Eric Garner case.
BROWN: He's running for Congress.
BERGIN: Brown goes door to door for an hour. This is her neighborhood, and she wants voters upset by what happened to Garner and the grand jury to send Donovan a message at the voting booth. The funny thing is she's not part of the Gentile campaign. She's just another voter talking about the big issue the candidates are not. For NPR News, I am Brigid Bergin in New York.
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