During his election night victory speech, Max Rose thanked his volunteers for their tireless door knocking and his top staff for its political savvy: “Brian, Jen: You figured out how to make a 5-foot-6 kid who was born in Brooklyn into something cool.”
He might have also added Jewish to the list.
Rose, who flipped New York City’s 11th Congressional District from red to blue in last week’s midterm elections with a 5-point margin, now lives in Staten Island, where the majority of his district is located. But he grew up in Brownstone Brooklyn, mostly in Park Slope, and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Union Temple in adjacent Prospect Heights.
With Jews making up just 9 percent of Staten Island residents, according to UJA-Federation of New York’s 2011 Jewish Community Study, Rose didn’t play up his Jewish background during the campaign. But his stance on Israel — “firmly committed to a two-state solution” through “direct, bilateral negotiations” — is stated plainly on his website, and during an interview with The Jewish Week, he said he (irregularly) attends shul in Staten Island and plans to raise his children Jewish.
Another surprising thing about Rose, who put his eight years of military service front and center in the campaign, is that he went to a series of elite schools: the exclusive Poly Prep for high school, super liberal Wesleyan College and the London School of Economics, where he earned a master’s in philosophy and public policy.
After that he took the natural next step for a Wesleyan do-gooder: enlisted in the army. While his fellow grads headed for the Peace Corps or Teach for America, Rose traded his backpack for body armor and headed to Afghanistan.
His motivation? Tikkun olam. “It was really based out of a desire to serve more than anything else,” he said.
“This was an opportunity to put my life on the line … an incredible, incredible opportunity for responsibility, an incredible opportunity to serve overseas, you know. It was also a moment when junior officers were incredibly empowered as a consequence of the counter-insurgency blueprint.”
The fact that most liberals don’t consider enlisting is “part of the problem,” he said. “The emerging civil-military divide, I think it’s a gigantic issue for the country that we can address by young people from a diverse array of backgrounds” mixing in the military, he said. “That was not a primary reason why [he joined] but a wonderful ancillary benefit.”
The divide is the reason he moved, four years ago, from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to Staten Island. “I wanted to be living in a community that was embracing veterans, or those who dedicate their lives to serving the community,” he said.
He said his decision to run for office began germinating while serving.
“When my vehicle hit a bomb in Afghanistan six years ago I nearly lost my life,” he said, “and the only reason my life was saved was the armor underneath my vehicle. The only reason why my vehicle had that armor was because congress allotted the funds for it with a couple hundred billion dollars, which they agreed to in a bipartisan manner.
“They didn’t care about the media, they didn’t care about their donors, they cared about getting something done. My hope is, my sincere belief is, that that [example] is … evidence of our potential for [solving] problems much larger … and that’s what I want to dedicate my life to.”
Rose is the first Democrat (without also running on the Conservative line) to win boroughwide office on Staten Island since Michael McMahon won the district attorney race in 2015. Before McMahon, a Democrat hadn’t won a borough-wide race in more than 50 years.
Richard Flanagan, who teaches political science at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, said that while there have always been more registered Democrats than Republicans on Staten Island, a lot of them are “Reagan Democrat types voting the other way.”
“And also Democrats never had their act together in a big way,” he said. “Other than Michael McMahon, you never really had well-funded candidates like Rose.”
Rose gained national attention when he began getting support from the Democratic Campaign Committee as well as several progressive organizations including MoveOn and Swing Left. In the end, Rose raised $4.2 million compared to Donavan’s $2.3 million.
And then there were the volunteers, which were both homegrown and from nearby boroughs, especially Brooklyn, where part of the district lies.
“If you read the Staten Island Advance, they act like Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge don’t exist [in the district],” he said. While two-thirds of District 11 is Staten Island, he said, “the other third is getting increasingly Democratic; the fall of [longtime Republican State Senator] Marty Golden personifies that. Bay Ridge is gentrifying: A lot of the Italian and Irish old-timers are passing on or moving out and so it’s getting bluer.
More than a thousand people volunteered for Rose, with nearly that number canvassing the weekend before the election, according to the campaign.
“There was no call you wouldn’t make, there was no door you wouldn’t knock on,” Rose said to the multicultural crowd on election night.
Rose’s campaign leadership also had significant strengths. His campaign manager, Kevin Elkins, served as communications director on McMahon’s winning campaign and Rose’s communications director, Jennifer Blatus, headed New York City’s City Council press office for two years. “He picked up a campaign apparatus that was Staten Island based,” he said, noting that Elkins, a former student of his, has been “very active in the county party. So the connections were there.”
And Rose himself ran a tight campaign, Flanagan said. Although many of Rose’s volunteers were motivated by anti-Trump sentiment, in a district where President Donald Trump got 57 percent of the vote in 2016 compared to Hillary Clinton’s 40 percent, the candidate never rose to the bait.
“Rose was very disciplined about that: You did not go after Trump. Even rooms that were locked-and-loaded on such a message, where it would have been the room-pleasing thing to do.”
Staying as far away from Trump as possible was a mainstay of a training I attended as a volunteer several weeks ago. On a blustery Sunday, about a dozen of us stood in Rose’s Staten Island, bare-bones campaign office listening to tips from a staffer. Instead of a message of resistance, we were told to try to squeeze in three main points: veteran; used to head an opioid clinic; and refuses lobbyist and corporate donations. (According to the Rose campaign, his opponent, incumbent Daniel Donovan, took more than $10,000 from executives at Purdue, the maker of OxyContin.)
But of the dozen or so people we talked to that afternoon, not a single person brought Trump up. Nor did we encounter the stereotypical police or fire workers Staten Island is known for. We met people of Russian, Asian and Latin American heritage. About half said they were already planning to vote for Rose. The rest seemed to be genuinely considering it.
On the final weekend before the election, there were hundreds of volunteers — 1,000 — according to the campaign, who had to line up around the block to get their campaign assignments. Many people brought their children.
Rose matched the volunteers’ spirit, another factor in his win, Flanagan said.
“He was very energetic and he got out there, and his background as a veteran is a good resume for a lot of voters,” Flanagan said. “He worked really hard.”
He added: “He really has cracked the code on winning island-wide and also in the bigger congressional district,” Flanagan said. “They were working hard, lots of volunteers in the final few weeks, and on the Brooklyn side there was a ton of activity … . So Rose won by a couple hundred on Staten Island and then, you know, creamed Donovan on this side [Brooklyn]. And that gave him the margin.”