Jewish Veteran Max Rose Fights for Re-election in N.Y.C.'s Last Republican Stronghold

Facing a tough re-election race in his Staten Island and South Brooklyn district, the Democratic representative tells Haaretz why bipartisanship is now more important than ever

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York
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“My district is not a Trump district, just like it’s not a Rose district," says Rose, who defeated a Republican incumbent in 2018.Credit: Anna Moneymaker,AP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
New York

NEW YORK – Democratic Congressman Max Rose says he doesn’t care about politics. Amid the fierce battle for the New York district he surprisingly flipped in 2018, he believes that’s what’s going to help him win again in November.

“That is what this election is all about: Who’s willing to [criticize] their own party when they do wrong,” he told Haaretz over the phone from Washington. “I don’t care about Twitter, I don’t care about social media. I’m not gonna move with the wind according to the most recent hashtag. That’s what’s wrong with our politics today.”

The U.S. Army veteran made headlines two years ago when he unseated Republican incumbent Dan Donovan in the 11th Congressional District, historically a conservative bastion covering Staten Island and South Brooklyn. In the 2016 presidential election, for instance, Donald Trump received close to 60 percent of the islanders’ vote.

But Rose, 33, says the district “never changed” during that time.

“My district is not a Trump district, just like it’s not a Rose district,” he says. “My district is a patriotic, common-sense district that puts service first and believes that this country can fulfill its promise.

Rose voted in favor of impeaching President Trump, but says he is also looking for ways to work together with Trump on policy issuesCredit: ,AP

Taking aim at de Blasio

The incumbent is now facing a tough challenge from Republican State Assemblywoman and Staten Island native Nicole Malliotakis. Though she lost the 2017 mayoral race to Bill de Blasio, she garnered 70 percent of the vote on the island.

The closely watched election promises to deliver plenty of drama over the coming weeks. The candidates have already been involved in a heated war of words, Rose slamming Malliotakis, 39, for “lying in Albany for a decade” and constantly “shifting her view.” The Republican candidate returned fire by calling Rose “cowardly” and attempting to link him to democratic socialists.

Rose, however, prides himself on his willingness to criticize fellow Democrats as well as Republicans. De Blasio has been the subject of heated criticism, with Rose going so far as to call him “the worst mayor in the history of New York City” in a recent campaign ad, accusing him of driving the city into the ground.

“No plan for us to get out of the pandemic, no plan to increase testing, no plan for the next pandemic, no plan to show the rest of the country and the world how New York City can be an inclusive and just city,” Rose told Haaretz, listing his grievances against de Blasio. “He doesn’t give a damn.”

In a borough like Staten Island, anti-de Blasio rhetoric is just what many local residents want to hear. According to a Quinnipiac University poll from April 2019, 64 percent of Staten Islanders disapprove of the mayor.

“Standing up to Mayor de Blasio when 75 percent of the district hates him is not very courageous. It’s just following a poll,” Malliotakis told a local television station last week.

Rose has called Bill de Blasio "worst mayor in the history of New York City" for his handling of the COVID-19 crisisCredit: Frank Franklin II,AP

But Rose’s anti-partisan strategy may be well received in his district. Mendy Mirocznik, president of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Staten Island, says he finds it “very painful that we’re in a day and age where we cannot have our members of government able to have a conversation to get things done.”

Staten Island Jews, he believes, “don’t like to be pulled into a partisan issue. We like issues being dealt with in a mature, responsible way.”

According to Mirocznik, “the Staten Island voter looks more at the individual, less at party affiliation. They look more at what the person brings to the table and what the messaging is.”

In that sense, he sees politicians like Rose as a breath of fresh air in the current dynamic. “The man voted for impeachment against the president, but supports the president on key objectives for the country,” Mirocznik notes. “He’s somebody who can talk to whoever he has to talk to, to help the district.”

‘Our North Star’

Born and raised in New York City, Rose enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2010. He served as an active duty officer in Afghanistan from 2012-2013 and earned a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Combat Infantry Badge. The congressman still serves in the National Guard, with which he deployed in March 2020 to help the city’s coronavirus response.

"The most Israeli-looking member of Congress." Dani Dayan, Israel's outgoing Consul General in New York Credit: AFP

Prior to being elected, he worked for the late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson and served as chief of staff for Brightpoint Health, a nonprofit health care organization. He lives with his wife Leigh and their adopted 6-month-old son Miles in Staten Island’s St. George neighborhood.

Though his congressional win was part of the 2018 “blue wave,” he has repeatedly distanced himself from his more progressive colleagues in the House – freshman lawmakers like Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and fellow New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – especially when it comes to Israel.

Israel’s former Consul General Dani Dayan, who calls Rose a personal friend, says he’s “the kind of congressman Israel can rely on to maintain our bipartisan support.

“He’s a swing district Democrat who nevertheless always adheres to his principles,” Dayan says. “I always jokingly tell him he’s the most Israeli-looking member of Congress because he very rarely wears a tie.”

Rose, who serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security, recently co-introduced bipartisan legislation to formally support the newly signed Abraham Accords, which normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. The legislation reiterated support for Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge in the Middle East and for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a Zoom event hosted by the Democratic Majority for Israel last week, Rose criticized some of his Democratic colleagues for not vocally supporting the Trump-brokered agreements, Jewish Insider reported. The standard for supporting Israel “has to be that it doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat or Republican in power. That has to be our North Star,” Rose was quoted as saying.

Rep. Max Rose with wife Leigh during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, August 2019.Credit: Office of Congressman Max Rose

“Pro-Israel issues are a primary focus of mine and Max has unequivocally supported every piece of legislation promoting the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Jack Ashkenazie, a community activist in Brooklyn, told Haaretz in an email. “He clearly understands and unabashedly promotes the importance of this relationship with his colleagues in Congress,” he added.

Coloring outside party lines

Rose has also made combating antisemitism, which hit record numbers in the New York area last year, another key element of his campaign. “So long as I’m breathing, it’ll be a concern of mine; we have to hit the nail on the head,” he says.

“I think about the antisemitic vitriol plastered on the wall of a local Chabad; I think of my own constituents in South Brooklyn who earlier this year were afraid to wear a yamulke, who were afraid to go to shul,” he notes. “And I certainly think about the ways in which I have dealt with it personally over the years, being the first Jew [fellow soldiers] met when I was in the military.”

He colors outside party lines on this issue as well. Earlier this month, he hosted a Zoom event with Elan Carr, the Trump administration’s special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism, and vocally praised him for his work.

“We’ve got to deal with this across the political spectrum: We have a problem on the far left, we have a problem on the far right, and certainly we have a problem on social media,” Rose says.

Last December, the lawmaker went as far as joining Trump at the White House when he signed an executive order to combat antisemitic discrimination on college campuses. Rose was seen standing behind the president, next to Ivanka Trump, applauding along with the audience. “Congressman Rose has won my vote and confidence over and over again because he addresses these issues head on,” Ashkenazie states.

Despite being embroiled in an increasingly contentious battle to keep his seat, Rose says he’s optimistic not just for his chances but, “more important than anything, I’m hopeful and optimistic for the future of this country.” And he vows to continue to join colleagues across the political aisle on issues that matter to him and those he represents.

“It’s important, because that’s what people want from Washington D.C., that’s what they deserve: they want me to get stuff done,” he says. “I’m no rocket scientist, but if you want to get stuff done in today’s government, you gotta work across the aisle. That’s what service means to me.”

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