Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Navigate to News section

Max Rose Comes Late to the Party

The Staten Island congressman faces a tough reelection battle and a reckoning with policies that might be pursued by Democrats after a Biden victory

Jacob Siegel
October 13, 2020
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Has Max Rose arrived too late? The Democratic congressman is only 33 and shaves his head down to a gleaming scalp, a reminder of his former life as an army infantry officer. He calls himself a centrist populist, meaning he opposes not only Donald Trump, but also the establishment corruption of his party boss, Nancy Pelosi, and the ultra-progressivism that has been gaining ground on the Democrats’ left wing. It has been a winning formula so far, but for how long—and what is centrist populism in a country without a center?

With a month to go before some form of election day is manifested in the middle of America’s great unraveling, Rose is fighting to hold onto his seat in a crucial swing district that he won narrowly in 2018. The race has been bitter and well-funded and will serve as a crucial test for the future of the Democratic Party. In early September, Rose released a memorable ad that has come to define his campaign. On an empty sidewalk, Rose steps forward and speaks directly to the camera in a nasal Brooklyn punk kid voice reminiscent of the early Beastie Boys.

“Bill de Blasio is the worst mayor in the history of New York City.”

He jabs at the air with compact authority, projecting a formidable presence for someone who is, in physical terms, objectively speaking, short. At the word “city” his hands drop down in front of his ribs with thumb and pointer fingers extended like two pistols.

“That’s it guys.”

His hands spread out to his sides, palms up; the screen fades to black. In white block letters, “Max Rose for Congress” appears on the black background and lingers for the final line.

“Seriously, that—that’s the whole ad.”

The 15-second spot is a marvel of narrative economy; a throwback, in the age of the presidential tweet, to the heyday of 20th-century televisual political messaging. Never mind that Bill de Blasio is not running in the tightly contested race for New York’s 11th Congressional District, which covers Staten Island and a coastal strip of Southern Brooklyn. Approval ratings for the lame duck progressive mayor have hovered at around 40% in recent months, following his bungled management of the city’s COVID crisis and incompetent handling of police and protests in the midst of a citywide surge in violent crime. So it’s too bad that Max Rose’s actual challenger is Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican state legislator who stands a decent chance of winning the seat and turning him into a one-term congressman. With no other competitive races in New York, the pair’s spots, often taking vicious swings at each other, have been ubiquitous across the city for months now.

“Rose joined de Blasio and the ‘defund the police’ crowd, called to dismantle the NYPD, close Rikers Island and end cash bail,” Malliotakis claimed in a voice-over to one of her own ads. It’s an image of the opponent Malliotakis would like to be running against—but it’s hard to make the charges stick against a centrist combat veteran.

Detached from the landmass connecting the rest of New York City, Staten Island floats between four bridges. It is isolated at the southernmost tip of New York both by geography and culture. With just over 476,000 people, it’s the least populous borough in a city that is home to some 8.5 million people and the only one that’s flirted seriously with secession. In 2018, Rose was only the second Democrat in three decades elected to represent its isolated outcropping of conservatism, or what passes for it in New York City.

While Staten Island is technically a co-equal among New York City’s five boroughs, no less important than Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Bronx, no one on either side of the Verrazzano actually believes this. On the whole, the “forgotten borough” is more religious than the rest of the city, has more married couples, homeowners, landfills, tanning salons, and aspirational Real Housewives. It was ground zero for the city’s opioid overdoses before being overtaken by the Bronx. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won by a wide margin in New York City with 79% of the overall vote, but she lost decisively on Staten Island, where 57% of voters favored Trump. The island’s north shore has become more diverse in recent years, but it’s the only borough that still has a white majority.

I’m not going to shift and move and contort myself according to the latest meme and tweet. Unfortunately, there’s a bit too much of that going around these days.

“2016, the Republicans run on making roads and bridges great again. 2018, I run on a generationlong infrastructure project,” the congressman told me last year, explaining how he turned his district blue. Rose may be a liberal of sorts but, God forbid, he’s not one of those liberals. He won his seat by running as an old-school New Deal Democrat willing to criticize his own party and work across the aisle for a greater civic good. That allowed him to appeal both to enough voters in the Brooklyn portion of his district, with its large Muslim community and rapidly gentrifying younger demographic, while also convincing the skeptical Staten Islanders, a majority of whom had voted for Trump in 2016, that such Democrats still exist, and had a role to play in the local and national Democratic Party.

Forget ideology, Rose was saying; the point of government is to intervene on behalf of ordinary people, not to bail out corporations and arrange sweetheart deals for the donor class. Only, to get back to that spirit of governing for the people requires throwing out the bums and the ideologues and electing competent patriots—people like Max Rose—in positions of leadership. “Over and over again the American people have demonstrated that they are so united around their frustrations that they’ve been ignored or ripped off, that they are just looking for the political class to do something about this.”

To understand how Rose made it this far is to consider the uncertain future of the Democratic Party, which retook the House two years ago by electing moderates like Rose in purplish districts, but where all the momentum had appeared to be with the radicals at the far edge of the resistance, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and the other members of “The Squad.” Then the story turned with the defeat of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and the overwhelming support behind normie restoration candidate Joe Biden. A defining advantage of the Biden campaign so far has been how much it leaves to the imagination about what the leadership and governing agenda of a Biden presidency would look like. If Biden wins, the party’s internal momentum could well turn again, in which case Max Rose’s goose is probably cooked.

Rose is a third-generation American. He was raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn—cultural capital of assimilated Jewish American urban flourishing, a place for people who would never dream of leaving for the suburbs, who put their money into brownstones and filled them with books and other signs of learning and cosmopolitan taste. His parents were a professor and a medical laboratory executive. He had his bar mitzvah at the local Union Temple. In high school he was the captain of his wrestling team. He attended Wesleyan, studied at Oxford, and took a Masters in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. From there he veered from the prescribed course and took his commission in the army as an infantry officer. He earned his Ranger tab at Fort Benning, Georgia, and his Combat Infantryman’s Badge on a deployment to Afghanistan. Rose connects his core political ethic to his decision to enlist. His “north star,” as he calls it, is service.

For someone with his background and education, patriotic service was not an obvious choice. “Going into the army you face a tribunal,” Rose said. “There wouldn’t be any questions if you said I’m going into the finance industry. It’s fucking disgusting.”

Has such a story ever before been possible? Try to picture great-great-uncle Mendel whose dream after coming to America was that one day his progeny might own a pharmacy in Yonkers because anything was possible in this land of opportunity. What would Mendel make of Max Rose? He’d be proud of such a fine and fully formed American, of course. Or maybe he’d be horrified at someone so assimilated, so goyishly patriotic. What is certain, is that he could not help but be amazed by the sheer marvel of it: Scholar, combat veteran, congressman? And a proud Jew! A credit to his people!

I happen to know Max Rose. Not well, but, in a sense, intimately. Our formative military experiences took place in different units long before we met but we served together briefly in the New York Army National Guard. After two deployments overseas, I got out for good in 2017. Rose stayed in, was elected to Congress in 2018 and earlier this year was called up to active duty for a two-week deployment in support of COVID relief efforts in New York. In the period when Rose and I overlapped, there were at least four of us Ranger-qualified Jewish combat veterans serving among the Fighting Irish of New York’s famed 69th Infantry. Out of the four, I’m pretty sure Rose and I were the only two Brooklyn-born and bar mitzvahed sons of academics, though it wouldn’t surprise me if there were others; this is a big country.

I can’t help but see Rose’s journey from Park Slope to Afghanistan to Congress as the culmination of a long historical arc. At the risk of overidentification with a person manifestly more accomplished than myself, vain projection, and other psychological and journalistic misdemeanors, Rose appears to me to be a crucial figure in Jewish and American political life. He is running an experiment that will show just how far a Democrat can get trying to rally the unspoken for constituency looking for a respite from endless partisan war somewhere between Bill de Blasio’s New York City and Donald Trump’s America.

Back in January of 2019, I spent a day with Rose (for a Tablet piece that ended up on the backburner), who was back in Staten Island after only a few months in office in the midst of the longest government shutdown in American history. “I wanted to come here and really apologize from the bottom of my heart,” Rose told a group of Coast Guard members who, along with their spouses, were running a food pantry on Fort Wadsworth because they hadn’t been paid in weeks. “We really failed you in D.C.,” Rose said. “That’s not a political statement.”

From the military base we took a short drive to St. Peter’s, where a local Knights of Columbus chapter was holding a fundraiser to help pay the medical bills of a teenage boy whose family belonged to the Catholic church.

The church hall held more than 200 people, with families sitting at round tables, milling around talking, and waiting for the raffle prizes to be announced. As we were leaving, a stout middle-aged man approached the congressman. He said his name was Harry. “Thank you for your service,” he said to Rose. “And thank you for getting the government open by the way. What a fucking disaster.”

Harry looked impatient to get to his real point. “Listen, I didn’t vote for you but I want to talk to you. I think you gotta start being specific.” He mentioned the border wall as an issue where he felt the congressman’s position was too vague. Rose spoke with him politely for a moment, thanked him and left.

The final stop of the day was at a local public high school in walking distance from the church. The students were there on a Saturday along with parents and teachers for a recruitment fair featuring historically Black colleges. The high schoolers were mostly lost in their own teenage thoughts but Rose got a warm reception from parents and school staff. It was a lighter, more upbeat atmosphere than anywhere else we had visited and Rose was looser, modulating his tone and adjusting to the room as he had been doing all day, while staying on message. The government shutdown, still looming over everything at that time, played to Rose’s strengths: It confirmed his diagnosis of bipartisan fecklessness and government incompetence screwing over average Americans, and it gave him plenty of opportunities to use the form of speech at which he excelled—the nonpolitical political statement.

It was already getting dark when we got a table at a local bar to talk before parting ways. I had coffee, Rose had a soda. I asked him about the surge of anti-Jewish attacks in New York and the signs of estrangement between Jews and the Democratic Party. “I am vigilant, I’m awake and I am concerned as a Jew and as a member of Congress and as a veteran. But I do not want people to think that the Democratic Party is somehow in an anti-Semitic disarray,” he said in the bar nearly two years ago. “There’s zero evidence that we are there.”

The following month, Rose’s fellow freshman Democrat tweeted her opinion that American support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins baby.” Omar was quickly forced to apologize and then just as quickly followed up on her apology by accusing American Jews of dual loyalty and pushing “for allegiance to a foreign country.”

“First of all I am incredibly yet again disappointed and offended because I’m a Jewish army combat veteran,” Rose told me at the time by phone. “I don’t have dual loyalties. I have loyalty to the United States of America. I watched people I love get really hurt and risk their lives in support of this country.”

Omar’s comments and the growing hostility to Israel among younger activists and political leaders did not shake Rose’s fundamental faith in his party. “What are the proposals being made and where’s the Democratic support for those proposals that are anti-Semitic and anti-Israel at the federal level?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question that elided the fact that the Democrats did not control either the Senate or the White House. But Rose added that whatever responsibility the Democrats had, it shouldn’t distract from the fact that Trump was clearly inciting anti-Semitism from the White House.

Focusing on firebrands like Omar would paint a distorted picture, Rose said. “I have right now more members of Congress who openly believe in creationism than the One State Solution. You want to write a story about that?”

This is how you play the long game. While the dismal prognosticators warn that hyperpolarization is leading us toward civil war, constitutional crisis, or permanent banana republic status, Rose is betting that the fevers of the moment will burn off and what will be left is the core decency of the American people and his own responsibility to look out for their interests.

“I will guarantee you over the next 50 years that the Republicans will be in control and have the keys to the castle at one point and Democrats will have the keys to the castle at one point,” Rose said, voicing his admirable faith in the future of a normal, functioning democracy. “I’m not going to shift and move and contort myself according to the latest meme and tweet. Unfortunately, there’s a bit too much of that going around these days.”

He’s right, of course. The presumption of normalcy bothers me, though. I wish I could share his assumptions, but my mind drifts towards darker visions of the future.

It has been a long 19 months since Rose and I last spoke. One thing has become clear in the intervening period, watching him manage the competing demands of his constituents, his party, and his sense of service and of self: The chaos of the Trump era, for everything else it has wrought, is part of what made Rose possible. Because Trump played the dangerous, selfish, nativist, version of a populist, it allowed Rose to use that familiar frame, while presenting himself as the sober, inclusive alternative. He has tried his best to straddle the center: backing Trump’s executive order to fight anti-Semitism and White House efforts on the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and sanctions aimed at Chinese pharmaceutical companies, while also, after dragging his feet, falling in line with his own party and voting to impeach the president.

Assuming that Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump, and the Democrats take the Senate, we will see what happens when Rose’s party controls the federal government, and what kinds of proposals they offer.

The story Rose tells reporters that is supposed to encapsulate his commitment to service is about the armor plating that saved his soldiers’ lives and his own when their vehicle hit an IED in Afghanistan. Known as a V-shaped hull, the armor was designed to deflect the force of an explosion by dispersing its impact. Rose’s point is that only the government could have provided that kind of equipment on the timeline it did, because the urgency was based on civic need, not the profit motive. To get such critical lifesaving equipment to soldiers in a war, we needed a bipartisan effort led by elected officials willing to put the common good above partisanship. And that is exactly what we need now, Rose is saying, to address COVID and the opioid epidemic and the other lethal maladies that are killing Americans.

On the other hand, when I think of the V-shaped hull that saved the lives of American soldiers, it is not only the bipartisan effort behind its manufacturing provisioning that comes to mind. The V-shaped hull was made necessary by wars in which American soldiers were stranded on roads to nowhere in Iraq and Afghanistan, unable to pursue either a meaningful victory or a withdrawal. It was their leaders and public servants in Washington who left them there. The V-shaped hull was a Band-Aid on a costly, horrifying mistake, made by the kind of people who don’t like admitting that they make mistakes. The fate of such people, if they are allowed to stay in power, is that they keep making similar mistakes, often on a grander scale. Even the most sincere and selfless acts of service may not be enough to reverse that spiral of failure.

As America shudders toward another decisive moment in what is already a busy century, there is a deep appeal to Rose’s call for a politics of service in the name of ordinary working people. But does it have a future?

Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.