October 18, 2020
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — To win a seat in Congress, New York Democrat Max Rose had to beat a popular Republican incumbent who’d been in public office for two decades. To keep his seat two years later, Rose has to defeat, for all intents and purposes, the Democratic Party of 2020.
This explains the all-out war Rose has waged against a lineup of liberal targets. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is extremely unpopular on Staten Island, has a record of “woeful failures,” he says. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has perpetuated a “limousine-liberal trope that the military is filled with a bunch of idiots who were duped into” serving.
And, in Rose’s estimation, Democratic Party leaders are preoccupied with pandering to Twitter and MSNBC in an attempt to put “the wealthiest counties in America at psychological ease.” The national party is “right up there with Covid in terms of brand appeal” in his district, he quips.
Rose, a five-and-a-half-feet tall, bald Army veteran, represents a Trump-loving, cop-heavy district. And as some of the loudest voices in his party lurch to the left, his prospects for reelection could hinge on how well he can avoid being tied to the national party through sheer force of personality and plenty of f-bombs.
“The party has to stand for something, it’s got to be for something, it’s got to be known for something,” he said in an interview last weekend. “It’s got to be trusted, not just something people turn to when they’re rejecting something else which is — for the entirety of my life, the entirety of my life — what it has been.”
New York’s 11th District, which includes culturally conservative Staten Island and a swath of southern Brooklyn, is at the heart of all the national forces buffeting the 2020 elections. It was hit severely by the pandemic and Congress’ inability to secure another relief package, and it is chock full of current and retired law enforcement officers deeply offended by allegations of widespread police brutality.
Yet while his district is unique, this race is also a broader test of whether Democrats who ran as moderates calling for a new kind of politics can maintain that brand after two years in office.
His Republican opponent, state Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, and her allies are racing to yoke Rose to national and local Democrats, and she’s made public safety her number one campaign issue.
“It’s a referendum on Bill de Blasio and the ‘Defund the Police’ movement in many ways,” Malliotakis said of her race. “What’s on the ballot, I think, is ‘law and order’ versus anarchy.”
Rose ousted GOP Rep. Dan Donovan, the popular former district attorney, by 6 points in 2018 in a win that few in his party saw coming. “They thought there was a correlation between electoral success and good looks,” Rose joked.
Last cycle, he ran a populist campaign against both parties. And he’s again rooted his bid on a “country over party” platform, warning that Malliotakis blindly follows the GOP — even when the party’s policies harm New York.
Rose staged a fiery press conference last weekend with two state legislators at the boardwalk to excoriate President Donald Trump and Congress for failing to secure a pandemic relief package, berating Democrats and Republicans for their “games, partisan bills, temper tantrums” that string Americans “along in an unnecessary, dangerous and destructive political game.”
His tirades against both parties — he refers to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a “legislative sociopath”— resonate with some voters.
Handing out masks last Saturday morning at a Mid-Island Shop & Stop supermarket, Rose was accosted by a man railing on de Blasio and the two-party system. “Trump doesn’t belong there. Biden doesn’t belong there. One party. Common sense. No more Democrats, no more Republicans,” he screamed.
“You speak the truth!” Rose yelled back.
“Run for f—ing mayor right now. Right f—ing now. Get down there and go,” the man bellowed, as Rose dropped to the ground and did push-ups at his feet. (Rose later said he was not interested in running for mayor next year.)
“Rejecting politics as usual is something that young people really respond to,” said state Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Islander who, before 2018, was part of a breakaway faction of Democrats who aligned with Republicans in Albany to give the GOP control of the state legislative chamber.
Staten Islanders insist they are motivated by personality far more than party. It was the only seat in the country that backed John McCain for president in 2008 but President Barack Obama four years later in an election held the week after Hurricane Sandy. But voters here swung hard for Trump in 2016, handing him a 10-point victory.
“It’s a gut feeling that some people have that he’s authentic, consistent, a fighter, looking to upend the system,” Rose said of Trump’s win. “There’s no need to say something negative about him in this analysis,” other than that he hasn’t kept “the vast majority of the promises he made.” But Trump’s election is the “indictment of the Democratic Party” and a sign of “a massive loss of trust,” he said.
Rose’s gripes with the Democratic Party are well-known. He thinks it lacks a bold populist platform that could appeal to those outside of the coastal elites, and that its rhetoric drips with condescension. He railed against Ocasio-Cortez for opposing Amazon’s proposed Queens warehouse as “an ideological statement” that hurt New York and for introducing a bill to ban military recruitment on video game platforms.
“I don’t see anyone doing a bill to ban the recruitment of corporate lawyers and investment bankers on our Ivy League campuses,” he complained.
Rose, 33, seems to be banking on eliciting the same gut feeling in voters as Trump did. And perhaps that his brash personal style can combat the caricature of the anti-police radical that Republicans are making him out to be.
But some have tried to cast him an opportunist, a Park Slope liberal who moved to Staten Island shortly before his 2018 run. And they predict his bravado will come across as contrived.
“We don’t talk like that. Every third word out of our mouths is not an f-bomb. You know?” said Brendan Lantry, the chairman of the Staten Island GOP. “It just perpetuates this negative view of Staten Island when he’s constantly cursing in magazines and newspapers.”
Polling from both parties shows a tight race, and GOP operatives are hopeful about the salience of the “Defund the Police” hits they are deploying. Congressional Leadership Fund, a top GOP super PAC that’s invested millions in TV ads, says they’ve seen a sharp drop in Rose’s image rating in their polling after advertising on the issue. (The group is running an ad in which one resident calls Rose “a f—ing liar,” with the swear word bleeped for TV.)
But Democrats are vastly outspending Republicans on TV. Rose and his allies have aired nearly $11 million worth of ads, compared to just $4.5 million for the GOP, according to media buying data.
While knocking doors last weekend in the Westerleigh neighborhood, a swing area, Malliotakis touted her “support of all the NYPD unions” and her plan to “stop people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the socialist squad.” The literature she hands out while canvassing warns that Rose supports ending bail and closing Rikers Island, the city jail in the East River.
Like Rose, Malliotakis — who was thumped by de Blasio in the 2017 mayoral race by 38 percentage points, though she carried Staten Island by a wide margin — was also easily recognized. While knocking doors here last weekend, a group of 10-year-old boys rode by on bicycles.
“Wait, is that Nicole Malliotakis?” one boy called to her. “I see you on all the YouTube ads! I don’t believe them, trust me.” Then they invited her to a block party around the corner where she was greeted with cheers from the crowd and filmed a TikTok video with the kids.
Malliotakis claims Rose ran on a vow to be bipartisan but votes consistently with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, including on impeaching Trump last year. In response to Rose’s claims she won’t break with her party, Malliotakis notes she spoke out against Trump’s decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military and to restrict travel from some Muslim countries. “I’m my own person,” she said.
The candidates have grown increasingly contentious discussing Rose’s attendance at a summer march for racial justice, where he was photographed next to protesters holding signs that called for defunding the police.
“That was a defining moment. People were really upset, and rightfully so,” Malliotakis said. “The fact that he saw those signs and proceeded to march with them is disrespectful to the police. Period.”
Rose opposes defunding the police and says the New York Police Department should pay its officers more than any other police force in the country. And, he counters, the June march was a peaceful protest, organized by Young Leaders of Staten Island in coordination with the NYPD.
“Look at what she is doing to the leaders of that march,” he said, describing them as kids looking to improve their communities. “She’s positioning them as rioters, as looters, as criminals, as violent people, saying Max Rose marched with them. You realize how f—ing dangerous that is? And these are people that she will represent if she becomes a member of Congress. It’s just wrong.”
“The truth of the matter is I’m going to win irrespective of what they do,” Rose said. “So I just feel bad for the Republican Party and the ways in which they’re wasting their money. It is sad.”