Democrat Max Rose, a 31-year-old former Army captain who served in Afghanistan, certainly doesn’t mince words in talking about Rep. Daniel Donovan (R-N.Y.), the man he’s hoping to unseat this fall. The 11th district, which encompasses all of the New York City borough of Staten Island and a sliver of southern Brooklyn, is considered more conservative than other parts of New York City, a Trumpian area in a blue sea. But Democrats see a possible pickup opportunity there this November.
In an interview, Rose, who is serving National Guard duty, recalled an episode in mid-August in which he took a two-week leave from the campaign to train with the 69th Infantry Battalion. A company commander, he’d announced that he wouldn’t engage in any political activity during that annual training.
While Rose was away, Donovan launched political attack ads against him on Facebook suggesting Rose is soft on crime, claiming Rose’s “reckless liberal allies” want to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (a position Rose himself doesn’t take), which brought Donovan intense criticism from some veterans groups.
“Staten Island is not as red as many people think.”
“I knew that Dan Donovan was a spineless coward before I left, but he certainly solidified that perception when he attacked me while I was gone,” Rose said in our interview, which aired on SiriusXM Progress last Friday.
“He attacked a vet, a soldier, who could not defend himself,” Rose continued, having noted that Donovan never served in the military himself. “That was not just personally offensive to me. I could deal with that. But that was offensive to every single vet not only in my district and across the country, but to every cop and fireman and first responder and teacher, everyone who puts it on the line every day.”
Staten Island is in fact home to many of New York City’s police officers, firefighters and teachers, which are certainly groups Rose will need to win. Rose describes knocking on a lot of their doors to talk about the problems that have plagued the island for a long time, which politicians, particularly those at City Hall, have often ignored. The only borough of New York City that is not connected to Manhattan via a bridge or a tunnel, Staten Island has often been called New York’s “forgotten” borough.
It’s also been New York City’s only GOP bastion among the five boroughs, electing two of only three current Republican New York City Council members (out of 51). And while redistricting over the years makes it hard to draw conclusions about the distant past, since Staten Island became the bulk of the 11th district (which previously included larger parts of Brooklyn), voters have continually elected a Republican to represent them in the U.S. House.
But Staten Island is not as red as many people think.
President Donald Trump won the borough by 16 points in 2016 ― the only borough in the city he won, losing the four other boroughs by large margins ― but President Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in a squeaker there in 2012, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate took Staten Island since Al Gore in 2000.
“Clearly keeping in mind that the borough went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, Rose doesn’t focus on what Trump's said or done, but rather targets Trump for undelivered promises.”
In 2009, the borough, which is over 75 percent white, sent an African-American to the city council for the first time, Democrat Deborah Rose (no relation). She was then re-elected in 2013 and 2017 in its northern-most city council district. Nearly one-third of Staten Island’s residents are union members. And registered Democrats actually outnumber registered Republicans in the borough by a five-to-three ratio.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting the district this year, seeing it as one of the most competitive in the country, one that Democrats can win in an increasingly evident blue wave.
Rose, who’s refused corporate PAC money, speaks a lot about Staten Island’s infrastructure woes, including its terrible transportation system and limited access to Manhattan, which makes commuting for many a two-hour trip. He knows firsthand, having grown up in Brooklyn and having moved to Staten Island a few years ago.
A former health care executive in the nonprofit sector who attended the London School of Economics and Oxford University, Rose has also made fighting the opioid epidemic a central theme of his campaign, as Staten Island has been at the epicenter of the crisis in New York City. There’s a need, he says, for federal legislation that is an opioid epidemic equivalent of the Ryan White CARE Act, passed in the early ’90s to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic after years of ignorance.
“We need to have a significant investment in treatment, prevention and education,” he explained. “Because this is a public health crisis that is complex. People are also often dealing with chronic instances of multiple comorbidities: They don’t just have a substance abuse issue. They don’t just have an opioid addition. They have a mental health problem. Or a primary care problem. Or, potentially, even a housing problem. Or a jobs problem. And they deserve one-stop shops. Those issues can really be dealt with. We have conquered problems like this before [in dealing with HIV/AIDS].”
Clearly keeping in mind that Staten Island went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, Rose doesn’t focus on what Trump’s said or done, but rather targets Trump for undelivered promises.
“Donald Trump ran on making our roads and our bridges great again,” he said. “He ran on draining the swamp. He ran on doing something about the opioid epidemic. He ran on fair taxation. We have not seen hardly anything being done on these very important issues.”
“"His signature legislative accomplishment in his three years in Congress is an effort to put a picture of the president in every single post office in the country,” Rose noted, mocking Donovan’s fawning gesture.”
Rose also targets what he and many political observers see as incumbent Dan Donovan’s politically expedient bow to Trump earlier this year simply to get Trump’s endorsement over Donovan’s more Trumpian GOP primary challenger, Michael Grimm, who’d previously served as the district’s representative in Congress from 2011 to 2015. Grimm, who became infamous for threatening to throw a reporter off a balcony, was convicted of felony tax fraud in 2014, but was nonetheless re-elected that year. Under pressure, he resigned at the start of 2015, and then served a several-month prison sentence.
Donovan took the seat in a special election in May of that year. But in the Trump era, Grimm decided to stage a comeback, challenging Donovan in the primary this past June. Grimm, who’d previously enjoyed a kind of cult status on the island, lost by a wide margin. The loss was attributed by some to Trump’s endorsement of Donovan.
“Dan Donovan, as he was being primaried by a guy who’d just gotten out of prison, ran to the White House to get bailed out,” Rose observed, going on to describe how a petrified Donovan, who in the past had distanced himself from both Trump and the congressional GOP agenda ― he’d praised John Kasich during the 2016 presidential primaries and voted against both Obamacare repeal and the GOP tax reform bill in 2017 ― obsequiously embraced Trump during this year’s primary, garnering the full-throated endorsement from the president.
“His signature legislative accomplishment in his three years in Congress is an effort to put a picture of the president in every single post office in the country,” Rose noted, mocking Donovan’s fawning gesture, a bill he introduced last spring which would require U.S. post offices to hang photographs of both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Rose continued: “It was the most flagrant example of one elected official kissing up to another elected official I’ve seen in my life. Beyond that singular act of political embarrassment, it was a grossly offensive statement to people who live here who have been dealing with incredible problems for so many years now.”
Talking tough, knocking on doors, and hitting on the issues, Rose exudes the kind of bravado Staten Island is known for when he says, “Dan Donovan’s days are numbered. He’s going to lose. I’m going to beat him by such a wide margin [that he’ll] never think about running for any office ever again.”
And with that, Max Rose is determined to deliver Staten island for the Democrats this fall.
Michelangelo Signorile is an editor-at-large at HuffPost.