A Democratic House Candidate Plays Against Type

Max Rose, a Brooklyn native and Army vet, is drawing national attention and money for the pugnacity of his campaign

Candidate Rose greeted a supporter on primary day in June (Stephanie Keith/The New York Times/Redux)

“I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.” —Navy veteran John McCain, after being called out for carpetbagging during his first race for Congress in 1982 

“I would’ve come here sooner; I was too busy defending my country in Afghanistan.”—Congressional candidate Max Rose, responding to an accusation that he “is not one of us”

The 11th Congressional District is an exception to the almost uniformly blue carpet of the New York City electoral map. It’s the most conservative Congressional district in the city, the only one with a Republican representative, and went for Donald Trump by eight percentage points in 2016. Staten Island comprises most of the district, but about a quarter of its voters live in a stretch of southern Brooklyn neighborhoods from Bay Ridge to Gravesend.

This year’s Democratic candidate, a purple-hearted, bronze-starred, Afghan War veteran named Max Rose, happens to have been born in Brooklyn, but watching his campaign, and his performance in a recent debate, one must concede that Rose does a pretty good job of appearing to be Staten Island to the core.

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Incumbent Congressman Donovan giving his acceptance speech on election night in 2015 (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

His crossover style is getting results. While the district might have looked like a lost cause judging by 2016 results, in which incumbent Dan Donovan won by 25 percentage points, it’s “now seen as a battleground, attracting national attention, and national money,” noted the New York Times, whose polling on Oct. 23-27 showed Donovan having a slight edge, 44% to 40%, with 15% undecided.

Indeed, to veteran election watchers, this year’s race has provided a dramatic role reversal. Though Staten Island once served as home base to the Jesuitical intellectual GOP State Senator John Marchi, recent Staten Island politicians have not been in the mode of wonky altar boys. They’ve tended to be pugnacious street fighters like Borough President Jimmy Oddo and former Congressman Michael Grimm, who famously once threatened to throw a Brooklyn-born reporter off a balcony.

But despite his occasional descent into verbal malaprops like “denucularizin,” it is the Staten Island native Donovan who is sounding like a wonk from the era of Marchi, calmly reminding voters of two-decades old battles he once fought as chief of staff to the Staten Island borough president. And it is the Brooklyn-born Democrat whose demeanor reminds one of Grimm, without the explicit threats of violence. Still, every once in a while, it looks like Rose is ready to heave Donovan over a balcony.

In some parts of the country, Democrats have nominated candidates who think base mobilization will wake up potential left-wing votes, even in places with no discernible history of having them. But in the 11th, Max Rose is just as happy to throw a right hook as one to the left.

Don’t like Mayor de Blasio (and this district decidedly doesn’t)? Max Rose says he’s doing a lousy job. Don’t like Nancy Pelosi? Max Rose wants to dump her. Against abolishing ICE? So is Rose. He opposes a carbon tax and rejects calls for Trump’s impeachment. In fact, Rose states that, when it comes to Trump, he will not be “a pure, unadulterated obstructionist.”

While some of his primary opponents attacked Donovan’s record as DA from the left, sometimes criticizing his failure to indict cops involved in the death of Eric Garner, Rose is attacking Donovan’s record from the right, saying Donovan was soft on the opioid scourge and linking it to Donovan’s campaign contributions from Big Pharma.  

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Rose, on the campaign trail, has taken positions contrary to Democratic orthodoxy (Photo courtesy of the Max Rose campaign)

This is not to say that Rose is in any way a conservative. Rose supports health care for all, attacking Donovan for flip-flopping on repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Rose wants to increase taxes on the super rich, opposes Trump’s detention of immigrant children, and attacks Donovan’s wavering position on immigration policy.

What Rose is doing is finding the sweet spot for a constituency which is not all that liberal, but embraces liberal policies it sees in its interest. More importantly, he does this while dog-whistling all the while that he is really “one of us.” 

Earlier this year, a lot of national Democrats quietly gave up on this seat once Donovan managed to beat back a Grimm comeback attempt in the primary. Grimm had resigned his seat in 2014 after pleading guilty to felony tax fraud, making him an attractive Democratic target, but Donovan prevailed, largely by making a sharp right turn. Now, veering back to the center, it appears that Donovan may lose to a Democrat who channels much of the Grimm demeanor.



Incidentally, perhaps because Rose knows that he can count on a safe majority of votes from Brooklyn, the borough got considerably less than its share of the recent debate’s attention. Rose did eventually manage to squeeze in mention of the R train, while Donovan admitted he does not even own a MetroCard.   

A Rose victory would be seen, especially in the context of Democrats taking the House, as a defeat delivered to Trump in a district he carried. And to some extent, it would be. Democratic Party activists here are loaded for bear and the leadership in both counties is working hard for their Congressional candidate, something they have not always done.

But anti-Trump sentiment here is probably not enough for a Democratic victory. What a Democratic victory here would take is a candidate who can read the local zeitgeist and translate the non-ideological portion of the voter anger which led to Trump’s 2016 victory here—Obama won the district in 2012—into anger against an incumbent regardless of his party.

And, if ever such a candidate existed, it is Max Rose. National Dems and their allies have been spending and contributing large for Rose, regardless of his ideological heresies. While FiveThirtyEight is still calling this race “Likely Republican,” current polling shows the gap dramatically narrower than two years ago. Could an upset be in the cards? Well, it was once inconceivable that voters here would figuratively toss Donovan off the famous bridge nicknamed “the gangplank.” And it is no longer inconceivable.

Howard Graubard, an attorney, Brooklyn resident and former aide to the State Senate Minority Leader, blogged about local, state and national politics at Ben Smith’s “Room 8” (and elsewhere) in 2006-16 under the pseudonym “Gatemouth” (no one was fooled)