In 2016, Donald Trump became the first presidential candidate since James Polk to lose both the state he was born in and the one where he resides. New York rejected the real estate scion by a margin of more than 22 points, and the gap was even greater in New York City, Trump’s hometown, where Hillary Clinton whooped the president, earning 79 percent of the vote.
There was only one corner of the city where that trend didn’t hold: Staten Island. In the “forgotten borough,” Trump banked 95,612 ballots to Hillary Clinton’s 67,561. While protesters have picketed and Trump Tower condo values have plummeted in Manhattan, the president’s popularity on Staten Island — where one artist erected a 20-foot lawn ornament in the his honor — has endured.
Not that any of that should come as a particular surprise. Registered Democrats may outnumber Republicans five-to-three in the borough, but it looks a lot more like the rust belt districts Trump carried in 2016 than it does the rest of New York City. It is whiter, more suburban and has a higher median household income than other parts of the city. It has a higher rate of union membership, too — one of the highest of any congressional district in the country. Normally, that would be good news for Democrats, but not after 2016, when a larger share of union households supported Trump than any GOP candidate since Ronald Reagan.
“The story of this district,” says Max Rose, candidate for Congress, is a story of “the failures of the Democratic Party.” The square-jawed Afghanistan veteran is a Democrat, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at his website, which eschews the traditional blue or red in favor of army green. His party affiliation isn’t mentioned anywhere.
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In a year when Democrats have a nearly nine-point lead in the generic ballot, Rose has distanced himself from the party’s brand, criticizing Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio (whom he accuses of “ignoring Staten Island and South Brooklyn”) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (who he says “has lost the trust of voters not just in my district, but across the country”) sounding like his opponent, the Republican Dan Donovan.
The Democrats’ chief problem, Rose says, is that they pay lip service to organized labor — and expect union members to show up at the polls to support them — then ignore them when the election is over. “We had the keys to the castle in 2009. We didn’t do anything about the carried-interest loophole!” Rose says. “Still, to this day, hedge fund managers pay a lower tax rate than the cops and firemen and teachers that call my district home. We had every opportunity to fix that, but we didn’t want to piss off our donors.”
The same goes for the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation introduced back in 2009 that would make it easier for employees to form or join labor unions. “We had the opportunity to actually do something that was pro-union and we didn’t actually do it,” Rose says. “All you have to do is look at our base — or what we perceive as our base — and you’ll see the very people who we’ve disregarded over. And over. And over again.”
Rose may be ambivalent about the Democrats, but the feeling isn’t mutual. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has put the 31-year-old in its Red-to-Blue program, prioritizing party resources in support of his bid. He’s earned endorsements from Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and he’s benefited from a swell of enthusiasm in the party’s grassroots, raising $3.5 million to date — much of that flowing from small-dollar donors outside his district. (Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke and a lot of other Democrats running this year, Rose has sworn off PACs.)
Unlike O’Rourke or Ocasio-Cortez, though, Rose isn’t on track to become a poster child for progressive Democrats in other parts of the country anytime soon. A former health care executive, he does not support single-payer health care (“I don’t see that system working in the country today”). Nor is he moved by progressive calls to abolish ICE.
The question is whether those same positions make Rose a perfect fit for this particular district, which went for Barack Obama before it went for Donald Trump (and for Al Gore before it went for George W. Bush.) It’s hard to say — no polls of the race have been conducted.
Rose will spend the next two weeks walking the fine line on which he’s been teetering for months — trying to convince the district’s registered Democrats that they can trust him to represent their interests in Congress, without alienating the Trump supporters who turned out in droves two years ago. In practice, that’s meant issuing searing criticisms of the president’s policies — like pulling out of the Paris climate agreement (which Rose calls “the most egregious foreign policy decision since the invasion of Iraq”) and separating families at the border — while largely avoiding bashing the president himself. (It’s worth noting that the incumbent, Dan Donovan (R-NY) has pursued a similar strategy in Congress, where he voted against the Trump tax cut, but introduced a bill requiring photographs of the president and vice president be hung in every post office in the country.)
In fact, Rose thinks he could likely find some common ground with Trump, on issues like infrastructure. Asked if he would vote to impeach, Rose insists he wouldn’t, usually adding a variation of the line: “I do not intend on going to Washington D.C., with a pitchfork in my hand.” And at a debate last week, Rose even invoked Trump’s own words, promising to “drain the swamp” of characters like his rival, Donovan.
Donovan was the district attorney in Staten Island when Eric Garner was killed by a police officer; he chose not to prosecute the cop, despite video evidence the officer used an illegal chokehold. It was one of several killings that helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement, but Rose hasn’t made Donovan’s role a centerpiece of his campaign.
The fact that Rose hasn’t made more of the Garner case is somewhat surprising, given that during his own time working for late Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson, Rose worked predominantly on a program to help resolve warrants for low-level offenses like selling loose cigarettes — the crime for which Garner was being arrested when he was killed. The decision is somewhat less surprising, though, when you consider Staten Island has the highest concentration of cops anywhere in New York. (The police union forcefully defended the officer who killed Garner.) Or the fact that, generally speaking, Rose hasn’t shown a particular willingness to stake out positions that would be unpopular in his district.
Instead, Rose has sought to highlight another decision Donovan made as DA — to disband a narcotics unit in 2004. New York’s 11th District has a higher rate of opioid overdoses compared to the rest of New York City, and that rate quadrupled between 2005 and 2011, while Donovan was DA. To drive home the image of Donovan as complacent (or worse) on opioids, Rose has pointed to the fact that his rival accepted $10,000 from executives of the opioid giant Purdue Pharma. (After a backlash, Donovan donated the money to drug counseling programs.)
“In the face of the opioid epidemic, in the face of gun violence, in the face of a commuting nightmare, Dan Donovan’s solution is two things,” says Rose. “One, get government out of your back pocket — cut taxes, for even the wealthiest amongst us — and two, hang a picture of the president in every post office in America.”
“For all intents and purposes, Dan Donovan is saying, ‘Hey, that’s life, those problems are here to stay.’ What I’m saying is we need to think big again in this country. We can have bold and transformative and dynamic solutions that are fit for the 21st century that actually solve problems and improve your life. But if people don’t trust me, they’ll go with the guy who will just put pictures in the post office.”