Rep. Max Rose (photo: @MaxRose4NY)
Max Rose calls himself a “centrist populist.” The first-term Democrat who represents New York’s 11th congressional district, which spans across Staten Island and along the shore of Southern Brooklyn, appears set on trying to make that label stick, and in doing so earn a second term when voters head to the polls next year.
Rose’s pitch and politics seem to match the district well: he’s a moderate, center-left politician and military veteran with a no-nonsense but affable and energetic personality. His mantra is serving constituents above political party, he regularly criticizes fellow Democrat Mayor Bill de Blasio, and he distances himself from the ascendent left-wing of his party, but sticks close to the House majority, though in fulfilling a campaign promise he did not vote for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to retain her leadership role.
But as he runs for reelection for the first time in 2020, a presidential year where Donald Trump is expected to be on the top of the Republican ticket, Rose is one of the top targets of Republicans hoping to regain majority control of the House of Representatives while holding the Senate and reelecting the president. Representing one of the swing-iest districts in the country -- represented by three Republicans and two Democrats in the last 10 years -- Rose is dealing with major countervailing forces: Trump’s strong popularity among many New York-11 voters and Democrats awakened by Trump’s surprise 2016 win who swept Rose into office last year.
Indicative of the minefield he finds himself navigating, Rose just became the last Democrat from New York City to announce support for impeachment proceedings against the president. While Rose’s somewhat cautious approach to Trump may endear him to some of his district’s center-right voters, it, coupled with his moderate positions on a variety of issues, could embitter the very Democratic base that he needs in his corner. But upon announcing he backs the impeachment inquiry into Trump at a Staten Island constituent town hall on Wednesday night, Rose shifted the terms of his already-heated reelection campaign.
“So while the President of the United States may be willing to violate the constitution to get re-elected, I will not,” Rose said on Wednesday. “I will not shirk my duty and I will not violate my oath. I will support and I will defend the United States Constitution. And it is for that reason that I intend to fully support this impeachment inquiry and follow the facts."
His announcement, coming just the day after a Democratic primary challenger launched a campaign against him, was met by derision from Republicans who hope to unseat him through next year's election.
Rose won the 11th district seat last year against Republican Dan Donovan, the former Staten Island District Attorney elected to Congress in 2015, in a 2018 election that saw a surge in Democratic turnout, giving the Democrats control of the House and dramatically shifting the national political landscape. Rose’s margin of victory was substantial – he received 101,823 votes to Donovan’s 89,441, even defeating the Republican on Staten Island by more than 5,000 votes.
It was a reversal of fortune for Donovan, who had been reelected to the seat in 2016 with 142,934 votes against Democrat Richard Reichard’s 85,257 (there were nearly 60,000 more votes cast that presidential year than in the 2018 midterms). It helped Donovan that Trump was running for president and won Staten Island with 56.3% of the vote against Hillary Clinton’s 41.2%.
But Rose is confident he can pull off another victory, even with Trump on the ballot, in part by remaining far more focused on local issues than the national dynamics of the 2020 election. “We have gotten tremendous amounts of legislation through and by that I don't mean symbolic or ceremonial pieces of legislation passed by the House of Representatives, and then resigned to the graveyard that is Mitch McConnell's Senate,” Rose said in a recent phone interview. “I mean things that have or will be signed by the president of the United States.”
He cited four major victories – approval for the Staten Island east shore seawall, permanent funding for the 9/11 victims compensation fund, sanctions on Chinese pharmaceutical companies to stem the flow of fentanyl into the city, and two-way tolling on the Verrazzano bridge to reduce traffic.
“Staten Island and south Brooklyn are on the map, and we are not stopping. We are advocating for issues at every level of government to make sure that people are no longer ignored,” Rose said.
Though there is a Republican primary for the seat as well – between Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis and longshot candidate Joseph Saladino, a YouTube personality who goes by the name Joey Salads and has a history of racist pranks – virtually all observers see the race as an eventual Rose-Malliotakis battle, though there does remain the question of whether any other Republicans may jump into the race ahead of the June 2020 primary.
When he first ran for office last year, Rose set himself apart from most other New York City Democrats, seen as a necessity in a district that defies the bluer boroughs. Though there are more active registered Democrats (191,145) than Republicans (114,363) in New York-11, along with 93,303 party-unaffiliated voters, the district elected Trump by a margin of nearly 10 points, after a tight victory there for President Barack Obama in 2012. Governor Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, won the district in his last two elections.
Though Trump remains extremely unpopular in New York City, with his approval rating at 26% (to 71% disapprove) in an April Quinnipiac University poll, his approval was generally higher on Staten Island, at 47% approval to 52% disapproval. The Island is fairly split, with more Democrats concentrated along the northern shore than in other parts of the borough, which gets more conservative the further south one goes.
Rose made it clear he was running against what he saw as ‘the establishment’ and the ‘career politicians’ in Congress and elsewhere who had ground the business of the people to a halt. He was, and remains, a critic of de Blasio, even focusing on him in a 2018 campaign ad, and refuses to embrace the politics of newly elected progressives in the House such as fellow New York City Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“We are showing people that you can make war against the establishment, you can choose not to play by the rules of inside-D.C. establishment politics while also accomplishing something,” Rose said in the interview, citing his vote against Pelosi’s election as speaker.
City Council Member Justin Brannan, a Southern Brooklyn Democrat and Rose ally, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “Ultimately this election is going to come down to what kind of elected official do you want. Max refuses to take money from lobbyists. He supports campaign finance reform. He has been unwavering in his battle against [the Trump] administration's discriminatory policies that directly impact the hardworking people he represents.” Brannan added that Rose has fought “Trump's discriminatory Muslim ban not just in words but in action by literally helping reunite families torn apart by conflict. Meanwhile, his Republican opponent is on Twitter posting ‘You're Fired’ memes.”
Despite his distance from Ocasio-Cortez and others, Republicans have still sought to paint Rose as a “socialist Democrat” who has betrayed the will of the voters who elected him. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has spent months hammering at Rose in press releases and public statements, largely on the general principle that he’s part of a Democratic operation hostile to the president.
NRCC spokesperson Michael McAdams says the party’s chances of taking back the seat are strong, citing the district’s strong Republican presence and Trump’s victory there in 2016. “Max has claimed that he is a moderate. On the campaign trail, he said he was going to be an independent voice for Staten Island, and he's gotten to Washington, D.C. and he's fallen right in line with the socialist Democrats and their socialist agenda,” McAdams said in a phone interview, though he did not provide specific examples (later in the interview he said Rose hasn’t taken a position on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants).
“He votes against President Trump 96% of the time, which is an absolutely shocking number given that a majority of his constituents voted for the president last cycle,” McAdams said.
Malliotakis, whose Assembly district covers much of the east shore of Staten Island and a small part of Southern Brooklyn, has extended the same argument. “As far as I’m concerned, this race is between me and Max Rose,” she said, dismissing any worries about facing a primary opponent. Though Salads is running a barebones campaign, there’s also the possibility that others could jump into the race. Michael Grimm, who previously represented the district and served prison time for felony tax evasion, has signalled he may run. New York City Council Member Joe Borelli, who represents the South Shore of Staten Island and is running for public advocate in this fall’s special election, has also not ruled it out.
“I believe I am more in line with the people in this district,” Malliotakis said, citing her nine years in elected office. She said the race would be a combination of local and federal factors. “This is a district that is pretty impacted by what the federal government does,” she said, pointing to the seawall project, national parks, a veterans hospital, and the Fort Hamilton army base. She also brought up issues that were salient in the 2017 mayor’s race, including her opposition to sanctuary city policies and safe injection sites for drug-addicted people, and said she would push for a federal infrastructure package.
“The Democrats in the House are more concerned with continuing investigation instead of actually working with the president to address a lot of these issues,” said Malliotakis, who has come around to closely embrace Trump as she runs for Congress after having been a supporter of Senator Marco Rubio in the 2016 Republican presidential primary and distancing herself from Trump in the 2017 mayoral race. She begrudgingly stated at one point that she had voted for Trump over Clinton, and expressed regret for having done so.
“I’m going to be running on the same ticket as the president and I embrace that,” Malliotakis said, when asked if she sees herself in line with the president, calling Trump a “voice of reason” in Washington, D.C.
The House of Representatives has “absolutely no interest in actually doing the job that they were elected to do and instead they're just looking to see how they can tear down the president,” she said, “And so he needs people who are willing to work with him, and particularly from New York City, and I will be an individual who will work with him to accomplish things where we see eye to eye...I'm not going to agree with everything the president does but for the most part, yes, I do agree with a majority of what he's doing. And I think that he's doing a good job overall.”
Malliotakis says Rose has been more progressive than moderate, insisting that he votes “in lockstep” with Pelosi and members of the so-called Squad of Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive women of color. “The votes he's taking in Washington are not representative of views in this district,” she said, citing, for instance, his support for a resolution that criticized Trump for a racist tweet about the women of color representatives of “the Squad.”
But it’s a tenuous argument, says Richard Flanagan, political science professor at the College of Staten Island. “I don't think it holds water with the independent voters at all,” he said. “Rose has done a really good job of positioning himself in the center, getting federal action on local issues. He's very upfront about his military record. It’s definitely differentiated him from [the members of the Squad]...I guess [Republicans are] going to do that to try to get their base to come out to vote, but it's not persuading anybody in the middle.”
Rose himself scoffed at the Republicans’ attempts to align him with progressives. “If they think anyone's gonna believe that, they're idiots. The truth is that nobody in the entire Democratic caucus has pushed back more than I have,” he said, pointing to his votes against Pelosi, his opposition to the Green New Deal, which he called a “socialist lie” in the interview with Gotham Gazette, and his repeated disapproval of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar over her criticism of Israel. “The NRCC and Nicole Malliotakis have such an obsession with these individuals that it's clear they would rather run against them than me,” he added.
On the question of impeachment Rose found himself in a difficult place. He issued public statements that showed him seemingly vacillating on the issue saying that “all options must be on the table,” which signalled to some that he was open to jumping on board. He voted to table a privileged resolution led by Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that would have disapproved of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s actions to begin an impeachment inquiry.
Just before Rose announced his support for the impeachment inquiry, McAdams from the NRCC said Rose’s decision, either for or against, would doom his chances of reelection with one or the other segment of voters.
“I think support for the president is at the top of the line there,” he said, predicting that support for impeachment would lose Rose votes among Republicans and opposition to it will anger the Democrats who powered his victory. The latest Quinnipiac University poll from September 30 may show a fast-moving shift, as it found that nationally voters were split 47-47 percent on impeaching and removing Trump from office. Just last week, support was at 37% and opposition at 57%. By a majority of 52-45 percent, voters approved of the impeachment inquiry opened by the House.
The NRCC and Malliotakis both quickly jumped on Rose after he proclaimed his support for the House impeachment inquiry. "Just one day after finding out he had a challenger in the Democrat primary, Congressman Max Rose caved to socialists Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Nancy Pelosi in the rush to impeach President Donald Trump," Malliotakis said in a statement. "It just shows that when pressure is applied, Max Rose stands with the radical left instead of Staten Island."
During his remarks at the Wednesday town hall, Rose followed his comments about the impeachment process by attempting to preempt that line of attack: "But, I want to make something else very, very clear: nothing, nothing at all—impeachment or otherwise—will distract us, will distract me from my work fighting for you," he said. "I will not let this or anything else detract us from our focus on ending the opioid epidemic, holding pharmaceutical companies accountable, making sure that we have the backs of our cops and our firefighters and our first responders, and yes--ending our commuting nightmare.”
What kind of impact Rose's support for the impeachment inquiry has on his standing in his district is yet to be seen. A great deal will of course play out over the next year-plus before the 2020 general election.
Rabyaah Althaibani, a community organizer and co-founder of Arab Women's Voice, a consulting firm, rallied the Arab vote in Southern Brooklyn behind Rose last year. But she’s worried that he has disappointed progressives, particularly by refusing to support impeachment. “There are a lot of issues that progressives...just don't agree with Max on, and a pretty sizable bunch of people are very upset with him,” she said, although she praised him for supporting the Yemeni American community by questioning the rationale behind Trump’s Muslim travel ban and for pushing to end American support for the war in Yemen.
“The Yemeni community and allies that care about the community, I'm just hoping that they're going to rally and help us get him elected again,” she added. “But Max has a lot of work to do, a lot of explaining to do. He needs to reach out to the progressive base.”
Althaibani did recognize that Rose faces a tough situation, having to reconcile the differing parts of the district with its spread of conservatives and progressives, and many moderates in between. She expressed doubt that Rose would face a tough primary. “I don't think anyone can do what Max is doing right now,” she said.
On Tuesday, the Staten Island Advance reported that Richard-Olivier Marius, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, is challenging Rose in the Democratic primary. In an interview with the paper, Marius said he had voted for Rose in 2018 but was running because of Rose’s failure to support progressive legislation like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, as well as impeachment of Trump.
A Democratic operative familiar with the race, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that Rose may be trying the same balancing act as the last Democrat to hold the seat, Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon, who voted against the Affordable Care Act in the hopes of not alienating conservative voters. But while that move backfired against McMahon, the dynamics of the district necessitate similar thinking by Rose.
As of the latest fundraising deadlines, Rose held a significant advantage. His campaign had $1.2 million in cash on hand as of June 30, compared to Malliotakis’ $475,000. (Saladino had $16,877 in his campaign account.)
But the Trump effect may nullify that. As Flanagan from College of Staten Island noted, the district has always been competitive and even Republicans have never won in a blowout. He said the race will hinge on voter turnout, which will be hard to predict since Trump being on the ballot will drive voters from both parties to the polls. “Are these Trump voters gonna come back and vote for Trump and vote straight ticket? Or are they willing to ticket-split? I think that's the big question,” he said.
Malliotakis is trying hard to turn Trump’s presence to her benefit, and appeal to voters across the district who have seen her on the ballot before, whether in her Assembly district or when she faced de Blasio in 2017 and, while receiving only 27.1% of the overall vote to de Blasio’s 65.1%, did blow the incumbent mayor away on Staten Island, winning 70% of votes to de Blasio’s 25.3%. (As it was in Rose’s 2018 win, one of the keys in 2020 will be the turnout in the more Democratic Southern Brooklyn portion of the district.)
On several issues, Malliotakis has broken from Trump while embracing him on most fronts. She has wholeheartedly accepted the aid of Trump and his allies, including national Republican stars like U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney and Dan Crenshaw, who canvassed for her in Staten Island a few weeks ago, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Yet a source close to the Staten Island Republican Party said she is far from an ideal candidate to beat Rose, despite the potential that’s there to unseat him. “Rose is vulnerable to a candidate that can land some punches on him,” the source said. “However, we saw from Malliotakis’ race against Bill de Blasio that she can't land a punch on even him.”
The source, who requested anonymity to speak freely about internal party concerns, added, “Rose is moderate, he's likeable, he hasn't made many errors. And I think when he campaigns, he grows his support. And the more Malliotakis’ campaign develops, the less it seems successful.”
The Republican said Malliotakis needs to “clarify where she stands” with respect to Trump. “The 2017 Malliotakis is not the same as the 2019 Malliotakis,” the person said. “It’s just so plainly evident that anyone can see it.”
Rose, meanwhile, believes Trump will fail to affect the vote. “I'm going to win,” he said. “The people of this district are independent and they will vote and have consistently voted for the person, not the party.”
Note: this story has been updated to reflect Rose's support for the House impeachment inquiry.