October 25, 2018

‘It’s not like the rest of the city’: can a Democrat flip Trump-voting Staten Island?

It’s not hard to find a congressional district in New York City where a Democrat can win as long as the candidate “has a pulse”.

That’s basically the whole city. But Max Rose is not running in that district.

The 31-year-old military veteran of the war in Afghanistan, running for office for the first time, has a tougher mission. He aims to flip Staten Island, the least well known of New York’s five boroughs, and the only congressional district represented by a Republican in this deep blue city.

Staten Island voted for Donald Trump, the only borough in the president’s hometown to do so, and it wasn’t close: he beat Hillary Clinton there by 17 points.

But Rose, whose well-funded campaign is taking on congressman Dan Donovan, is not fazed. The district, which also includes a slice of Brooklyn, has “consistently voted for the person, not the party”, he said.

“A Democrat cannot win just because that Democrat has a pulse. We don’t find a situation here where a Democrat can win just because of national dynamics,” Rose told the Guardian at his Staten Island campaign office. “Well, guess what? I don’t want to run in a district like that. I don’t want to live in a place like that. People deserve a choice, so we’re giving them one.”

Staten Island, sometimes dubbed the “forgotten borough”, is enough of an outlier within New York that it once voted to secede from the city in a non-binding referendum.

Though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, it has had a Republican representative for all but two years in the last three and a half decades.

“It’s just not like the rest of the city. It looks like much of the rest of the country. It’s more suburban than urban,” said Richard Flanagan, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island and the author of Staten Island: Conservative Bastion in a Liberal City.

And so, like in many swing districts around the country, the race features two candidates running as moderates and focusing relentlessly on local issues. “He’s an underdog, but a strong Democrat’s always in striking range,” Flanagan said of Rose. “It’s never been an entirely safe seat for a Republican.”

Outside a ShopRite last week on the island’s south shore, its most conservative bastion, Donovan shook shoppers’ hands and reminded them to vote.

“The national Democratic party doesn’t understand the Democrats here,” he said. “They’ve always voted for me and they’re going to do it again. I’ve done everything I promised them. I’ve done it with integrity. I’ve taken stances that hurt me politically.”

He’s counting on registered Democrats like Paul Binder, 61, who enthusiastically greeted his congressman after exiting the supermarket with a cart piled high with groceries. Binder calls himself a “former liberal”, who now dislikes both parties, but especially the Democrats. He likes Donovan because, as the former Staten Island district attorney, “I heard he’s tough on crime, and that’s good enough for me.”

“I can’t vote for these Democrats. They’re disgusting,” Binder said. “I’m a Donald Trump fan.”

Donovan doesn’t bring up Trump too often these days. He says the president has done a “remarkable job”, especially on foreign policy, but stresses that he voted against two crucial pieces of legislation, the GOP healthcare bill and the tax overhaul plan.

Things looked different a few months ago, when Donovan faced a primary challenge from ex-con and ex-congressman Michael Grimm. Grimm held the seat until he pleaded guilty to tax fraud and went to prison in 2015.

Donovan got Trump’s coveted endorsement, and put the president’s name on campaign signs in letters as big as his own, not to mention a two-story billboard promoting the endorsement. He introduced a bill to require every post office in the country to display a picture of Trump.

Donovan says nothing has changed: he supports Trump, but puts his constituents first.

Rose sees the shift less charitably. “If Dan Donovan read a poll tomorrow that said he could win this race by wearing an Abolish Ice T-shirt, you’d see Dan Donovan parading around in an Abolish Ice T-shirt,” he said, referring to the movement on the left to abolish the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The challenger has received high-profile endorsements from former president Barack Obama and former vice-president Joe Biden, and a financial boost from his inclusion in the Democratic congressional campaign committee’s Red to Blue program, which targets districts the party thinks it can wrench away from Republican control as it seeks to take over the House of Representatives.

But Rose says he won’t support Nancy Pelosi as the party’s House leader, and is quick to point out he opposes single-payer healthcare insurance, and doesn’t want to abolish Ice. He frequently criticizes the city’s Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio, who is deeply unpopular on Staten Island.

At his headquarters in a former guitar shop, there are signs from liberal groups promoting abortion rights and opposition to the Citizens United supreme court decision to allow unlimited political spending by interest groups. They share space with handwritten posters listing platform points on infrastructure, gun reform, taxes, healthcare, education and the opioid crisis – a particular worry in a borough where 101 people died of overdoses last year.

New York’s lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, joined Rose at his office last week to go after Donovan for his handling of the epidemic, criticizing him for disbanding a narcotics unit in the district attorney’s office and receiving campaign contributions from executives tied to Purdue Pharma, the company that makes Oxycontin. She called his actions “lessons in what not to be doing”.

Rose, who spent almost five years on active duty in the army, led an infantry platoon in Afghanistan. He became a healthcare executive after leaving active duty but remains a member of the national guard, taking a break from the campaign trail in August to complete training.

He is part of a wave of veterans running as Democrats across the country, but in New York City, he is the first combat veteran who signed up after 9/11 who is now running for office.

Rose was injured when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device, and says the incident taught him that Congress isn’t completely hopeless. They had appropriated money to make military Strykers more blast resistant. “If I had hit that IED in 2004 instead of 2013, I would have died,” he said. “In this odd way, I’m alive today because Congress got something done. So we know it’s possible.”

There have been no public polls in the race, leaving it a question mark just how close the only competitive race in the city is.

“I think it’s Donovan’s to lose,” said city councilman Joe Borelli, who is one of three Republicans on the 51-member council and known for his outspoken Trump support. “It’s tough to paint him in a way that Staten Islanders don’t like or wouldn’t like. Even a lot of Democrats happen to think Dan is a nice guy and a good congressional representative.”

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