NEW YORK — As Democrat Max Rose, a pugnacious 31-year-old Army veteran and former healthcare executive, made his way around a gathering of veterans at a high school auditorium in one of Staten Island’s most conservative neighborhoods Oct. 28, he didn’t mention his opponent, incumbent GOP Rep. Dan Donovan.
He didn’t mention the president, Donald Trump, either.
Instead, he shook hands, promised a new bipartisan future if he’s elected to Congress Nov. 6, and doubled down on their shared service.
“Hey everybody, Max Rose, running for Congress, I’m a vet as well,” he told the group of about 60 veterans and their families, sitting at round tables covered with vinyl tablecloths, waiting for a catered hot lunch provided by local restaurants.
Still, it was clear that Trump was very much on the minds of some of the veterans whose vote Rose was trying to win.
After all, while Rose is running for Congress in a city that’s one of the country’s liberal bastions, this is a district where Trump is not, for a change, the bogeyman. The key to winning for Rose won’t be his ability to motivate the liberal Democratic base, as it might be in other districts. Instead, he’s got to win over the independent voters who helped make Staten Island the one New York City borough to vote for Trump in 2016.
Mary and Paul DiTrento, two registered Democrats at the gathering, said it was unlikely they would vote for Rose. It’s not really about him, or even Donovan, they said.
Paul DiTrento likes President Trump, he explained. Trump “talks like we talk,” he said, in an almost apologetic tone. “I know it’s not presidential.”
The DiTrentos and the other swing voters in this unusual district present a difficult problem for Rose. Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in New York’s 11th congressional district, and the district voted for the Democrat in every presidential election between 1992 and 2012, before going overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. A recent New York Times/Siena poll also showed that 51 percent of the district approves of the job Trump is doing as president; 42 percent said they disapprove. And the district is divided on the issue of which party they think should win the House next week, with 48 percent saying they think the GOP should retain control, and 44 percent saying they think Democrats should win.
Polls show the race is tight, with Donovan leading Rose by 44-40 and 15 percent of voters undecided. Winning over those voters is probably the key to winning the whole thing.
“I just can’t see voting for a Democrat, especially the way they acted during the hearings for [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh,” Paul DiTrento said.
So during 15 months of campaigning, Rose has run a hyper-local race, avoiding unnecessary criticism of Trump for the most part and instead focusing his barbs on the “political class” that he says Donovan — who fended off a high-profile primary challenge from ex-convict and former Rep. Michael Grimm in June — belongs to.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, and a graduate of Wesleyan and the London School of Economics, Rose served five years in the Army, including ten months in Afghanistan, where he was wounded when his platoon’s vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device, earning him a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He moved to Staten Island in 2015, when he returned from active service; he most recently worked as chief of staff at the nonprofit health care provider Brightpoint, and remains a captain in the National Guard. He quit his job at Brightpoint a year go to campaign full time, and got married six months later.
A standard line in his stump speech goes: “Whether you like me or not, my wife very much wants to be married to an employed guy.”
Rose says he would not necessarily vote to impeach Trump if he’s elected; he says he first needs to see the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. He says he wouldn’t support Nancy Pelosi for speaker if the Democrats retake the House. He doesn’t support “abolishing ICE.” He’s quick to paint Democratic politicians as part of the problem he says he’s running to solve. The divisions in the country aren’t between Democrats and Republicans, he argues.
“I think that the real division is between the American people and the political class,” he told POLITICO. “You know, the Democrats had the keys to the castle in 2009! We didn’t do anything about the carried interest loophole, we didn’t do anything to eliminate some of the egregious unfair practices in our system — we didn’t do anything about money in politics and its toxic nature.”
“The problem that has existed in this district, and in districts like it around the country, did not start in January of 2017,” Rose said. “That’s not to say that this administration has not done some … bad things, things that I disagree with, that have certainly harmed people in my district and scared some of them.”
The district is a harder pickup for Democrats than it might seem on paper. Of the 416,000 active registered voters in the 11th, Democrats far outnumber Republicans; there are about 189,000 registered Democrats, and 112,000 registered Republicans as of this week. But that still leaves about 114,000 active registered voters who aren’t registered in any party, and history shows those voters tend to vote for Republicans.
Since November of 2016, about 11,500 new active voters have registered. The growth in enrollment is majority Republican.
“I wouldn’t make a prediction, but if you look at the history it’s been a very tough seat for Democrats to win,” Tom Wrobleski, a senior opinion writer at the Staten Island Advance, told POLITICO. “I don’t know if Staten Island voters are ready to throw over Dan Donovan, who they voted for in big numbers, for Max Rose. … What has Donovan done to lose their vote?”
Indeed, as Rose left the veterans luncheon, he shared a warm hug with a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair named Joe.
A POLITICO reporter asked Joe if he was a fan of Max Rose.
“I’m a Purple Heart fan,” Joe said. Asked who he’s voting for, he paused. “I don’t know yet. I’m still a friend of Dan Donovan. It’s hard.”
Rose’s critique of Donovan is that he hasn’t done enough, across the board — to address the district’s opioid crisis, to improve transit and traffic problems on the island, or to push back on the President’s tax bill, which stripped away the state and local tax deduction from states like New York. He’s pointed to Donovan’s campaign contributions from corporations like Verizon and Purdue Pharma, the company that manufactured Oxycontin, as signs that the incumbent is in league with the wealthy and not the middle class.
Donovan and Rose agree on some policy ideas — they’re both for universal background checks on gun purchases and they both have said they want to invest more money to tackle the opioid crisis.
In an interview with POLITICO this week, Donovan pointed to immigration, and Rose’s support for New York City’s status as a sanctuary city, as his biggest difference with the Democrat. It’s a stance that resonates in this corner of New York City.
“I’m against sanctuary cities. He’s for sanctuary cities,” Donovan said.
Rose has attacked Donovan as a flip-flopper on immigration who once supported more moderate bipartisan immigration reform, but tacked to the right when he was challenged in a Republican primary this summer. Donovan voted against a bill to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities because, he said, it would hurt local law enforcement.
Over the past week, the president has tried to gin up support for Republicans by attacking a caravan of migrants approaching the U.S. from Central America as possible criminals, gang members and disease carriers. It’s rhetoric that resonates in this corner of New York City.
It’s also rhetoric many people see as nakedly racist, but Donovan disagrees with that assessment.
“It’s not racist. We don’t know who’s coming,” he told POLITICO. “We have thousands of people who are still waving their home country’s flag. They’re not waving the flag of the United States.”
Donovan’s campaign recently sent out a mailer that says “Build the Wall” and has a line drawn through what’s supposed to be an immigrant family crossing the border.
Rose has significantly outraised Donovan, pulling in $4.1 million in donations to Donovan’s $2.3 million. But outside groups have spent more than $1 million in Donovan’s favor. Donovan is calling Rose a “carpetbagger” and using the large number of out-of-district donations Rose has received as a way to paint him as an outsider — at a time when President Trump is using fear of outsiders to motivate Republican voter turnout in the midterms.
One of Donovan’s campaign ads attacks Rose, who moved to Staten Island two years ago, as “not one of us.”
After the veterans luncheon last Sunday, Rose drove to a house nearby on Todt Hill, a leafy neighborhood of big houses and gated driveways, for a house party of about 20 at the home of retired physician and epidemiologist Deeptha Nedunchezian.
Steve Higgins, president of the Democratic Association of Richmond County, brought up the Donovan ad as he introduced Rose to the group of guests seated on plump couches and dining room chairs arranged around a coffee table.
“‘Not one of us.’ Isn’t that just the worst thing to say in this country?” Higgins asked.
Rose offered a version of his stump speech: How Congress banded together to fund the armor on his military vehicle that doctors credited with saving Rose’s life when he was injured in Afghanistan; how America needs to dream big again to fund solutions to the opioid problem and develop new highways and ferries. How he hasn’t accepted money from corporate PACs, and how there should be consequences for people, like Dan Donovan, who belong to the political class that Rose says got America into the mess it’s currently in.
Afterward, the group asks questions. A retired NYPD detective who says the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school “destroyed him” wonders what Rose will actually do to end gun violence. A physician wonders what will happen to his older patients if Congress cuts Medicare or Social Security.
Another wonders whether Rose will support Pelosi, and Rose says he won’t. Prior Democratic party leadership has hurt the reputation of Democrats across the country, Rose says. “No one trusts us.”
Rose urged the group to “have hope.”
“The future of the Democratic party can be found in the Democrats running for Congress in these swing districts,” Rose says. “Things will change. They really will.”