Meet Max Rose: New York's other Democratic rebel tries to turn a red district blue

Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Max Rose turned down super PAC money, and now hopes to flip NYC's only GOP district

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 7, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Max Rose (Matt Smith)
Max Rose (Matt Smith)

No one is likely to confuse Max Rose with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, either personally or politically. He is far more moderate, certainly would not describe himself as a socialist, and has yet to embrace benchmark progressive issues like single-payer health care or the abolition of ICE. But there are certain commonalities: Both are New York congressional candidates who won Democratic primaries by building strong community networks, campaigning hard on the ground and refusing to accept corporate PAC money. While Ocasio-Cortez made nationwide headlines by defeating 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, Rose's campaign may be more consequential in terms of Democrats' quest to win a House majority in November.

Rose is the Democratic nominee in New York's 11th district, which includes the southernmost slice of Brooklyn and all of Staten Island, and is the only seat in any part of New York City currently held by a Republican. (That would be Rep. Dan Donovan, who has generally supported Donald Trump's agenda while seeking to distance himself from the president personally.) Although the district has a long GOP tradition, this is likely to be a close race, given the prevailing winds of 2018. Rose has impeccable national-security credentials and can speak with authority on the danger of assault weapons: He served eight years as an Army office and is currently a captain in the National Guard.

Rose joined me recently in Salon's New York studio to talk about why he believes he can turn Gotham's lone red district blue. You can watch our conversation below; the transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity. 

Salon Talks: Max Rose

U.S. Army vet on his campaign to flip New York City's lone red seat.

Democrats are fired up this year, which means a lot of people are running for office. You were up against five primary opponents in New York's 11th congressional district and won in a landslide. What do you credit your victory to?

I credit it to a few things. One is the organization that we built. I think politics has been executed in a very wrong fashion on both sides of the aisle for quite some time. We’ve sliced and diced the electorate, given poll-driven messaging, tried to get out to vote with specific constituencies just a couple of days before an election. It’s absolutely wrong. It’s not only unethical but ineffective as well. So we spent the better part of the year really investing in relationships, investing and building a coalition that I feel like this district, Staten Island and South Brooklyn, has never seen. We presented a very universal message. I didn’t say one thing in one place and another thing in another place and another thing to my donors. 

We have been failed by our politicians for generations now. Failed! We have got to turn the page. We need new leadership. We need to present big and bold solutions for how we, as Americans, can actually solve problems again. So what we saw was that I garnered two-thirds of the vote in a six-way race, and we didn’t spend a lot of money to do it either. We didn’t go on TV. We went with old-school organizing and that’s something that we’re very proud of. That organization will move right on to the general election, and we feel very confident about November.

On the Republican side, there was also a contested primary between Dan Donovan, the incumbent, and Michael Quinn, who used to hold the seat. At least here in New York that got more coverage.

You don’t say? I didn’t notice that at all! [Laughter.]

How are you going to get your message to break through now that it’s a two-man race?

Well, despite the fact that the Republicans got so much more coverage, and despite the fact as well that $5 million or so got thrown into that race. I only got 1,500 less votes than Dan Donovan. I was in a six-way race and he went just against one other candidate.

So it shows the strength of this campaign. We are presenting a very clear message and it’s absolutely so significant right now. Let me tell you just a little about my district, in Staten Island and South Brooklyn, where we’ve been dealing with hundreds of overdoses. More deaths by overdose than people dying from car accidents, and people have dealt with it. Children right now are afraid to go to school because of the fear of gun violence and again, we just deal with it.

My district has some of the longest commuting times of anyone in America, whether they’re coming from Staten Island or from South Brooklyn. You probably take the MTA yourself, and it can be horrific. And the face of all these problems, though, we can fix it. We can. People are incredibly patriotic but they’re patriotic in an awfully nostalgic way these days, as if our best days are behind us. They don’t have to be.

So with that clear message coming from someone who has spent his entire life serving this country, both abroad and here at home, I’m confident that we’ll get the attention we deserve. I care about the attention in the district. I care about the attention door by door by door. 

You actually answered another one of my questions. I was going to ask you how you’re going to turn a historically red district blue.

Let’s talk about that. We kind of whimsically classify districts as certain things, right? "It’s a red district." It’s not. This is a district that votes for the person and not the party. So let’s run through some of the electoral history. It went for McCain in ’08, Obama in ’12, Trump in ’16. It voted for just as many local Democrats as local Republicans. It elected Mike McMahon as district attorney in Staten Island in 2015, becoming the first Democrat to win the borough in 50 years. What we see here is, this is winnable under any circumstances. You don’t have to ride a blue wave. It could be a blue drizzle.

If you’re actually truthful, if you spend the time earning the trust of voters. But if you just start with politics, if you don’t invest in communities, if you don’t invest in building coalitions, then you don’t stand a chance under any circumstances. That’s this district. It’s not a red district.   

There was another Democratic primary in New York that has everyone talking. Up in district 14, in Queens and the Bronx, where newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Joe Crowley, who was a 10-term congressman. I know Crowley endorsed you in your primary. How do you feel about Alexandria’s win?

I think it showed us some things that those of us on the ground have known for a long time. People are so desperate for change. They’re desperate for new leadership. They’re so desperate for elected officials who are present in the district, putting in the work. You can’t buy a handshake. You can’t buy someone knowing your name and knowing the community. But beyond that, certainly I honor Joe Crowley's service as an elected official. Now I have every reason to believe that that district will have great leadership for the future as well.

You are one of the growing number of Democrats who rejected corporate PAC money this election cycle. Why did you choose to go that way?

When you accept corporate PAC money, when a corporate PAC sits down with you and gives you a check, it’s incredibly transactional. They do it for two reasons. One is to lower their regulations, two is to increase their profit margin. Now, I’m running against an incumbent -- who knows, maybe there’ll be some PACs. There certainly have been PACs trying to give us money. But after I’m elected, they’ll line up. Not because they suddenly fell in love with me, or because they suddenly believe in my vision both for the district as well as for the country at large. It’s because they know that at that particular moment, I have power to influence their company's regulatory landscape or profit margin. They want to buy entrée to my office and we need to be done with that type of politics. We’ve seen the effect of this. This isn’t just theoretical.

Look at the current interest loophole: A hedge fund manager, private equity executive or real estate magnate today pays a lower tax rate than a cop, a fireman, a teacher or a sanitation worker who lives in my district and every other district in America. That’s absurd. That’s been propped up by both parties because of the role of corporate money in politics. So I don’t care how much they offer me. I’m certainly never going to take it when I’m an elected official.

Look at this tax cut that was just passed. A trillion dollars given away to wealthy individuals and multinational corporations that do not need it. If you look at the top corporations in America over eight years, each of them in at least one year paid, in effect, a tax rate of zero. That’s absurd. All while we have to deal with the commuting times in my district. We have to deal with the fact that it’s harder and harder to get into the middle class and stay there. Skyrocketing health care costs, skyrocketing education costs. People are getting pinched each and every day. I have to deal with the fact that there are medical deserts in my community, where people can’t get treatment for an opioid addiction. 

Do you think that these anti-corporate messages are a way to bring in a diverse group of voters who weren’t necessarily voting for Democrats in the past?

I don’t think that it’s artificial. Again, when you asked about corporate PACs, the first thing I said was that it’s the right thing to do. That’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for folks who are not just going to say the right thing but who are actually going to do the right thing. Then maybe they’ll give you 10 seconds to hear out your vision for the future of this country, for the future of your community.

Maybe they’ll even take the time out of their day when they’re working to go to the polls and vote because you actually convinced them that you’re willing to make hard decisions. I don’t see it necessarily as anti-business, but what I mean here is you’re not going to buy me off. My No. 1 priority, my only priority, is to work in the interest of my constituents, not for those corporations who can give me a quick check.   

You’ve been in the middle of what is turning into a big issue in this campaign cycle: the number of Democrats running for the House in November who are say they're going to vote against Nancy Pelosi and elect someone else as speaker. She was the first female House speaker. Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has called her the “strongest and most effective speaker of modern times.” So why do you want her out?

This is nothing against Nancy Pelosi’s tenure. The point that I’m making here is that the Democratic Party has lost the trust of voters. If you ran some significant Democratic policy positions -- investments in infrastructure, for instance, investments in our health care system so that we can lower overall cost while expanding coverage, supporting unions, doing something about rampant gun violence -- in a district like mine there’d be resounding support for them.

I promise you that the Democratic Party is not trusted, individual Democratic politicians running at the congressional level are not trusted. So I think during the process, to regain voters' trust, we need new leadership at the top. But we can’t stop there. To say that we’re just going to stop there is insufficient and I don’t think I’d be doing your question justice. The entire party needs to change, and I think that we are seeing that in so many elections across the country.

People are talking about a new and bold vision not just for the Democratic Party but for politics in general. Why is it that we have to live with politics that are so hyper-divisive? Why is it that we have to send elected officials on both sides of the aisle down to Washington who look like they care more about their social media presence and when they’re going on cable news than about actually solving a problem and not just waiting until the next cycle? How many politicians have you spoken to where it genuinely looks like they are willing to let a problem fester until the next election so that they will have a better chance of winning? 

They want to wait until 2020, or so some would insist, so maybe we can win the White House as well. That’s wrong. Both parties are doing it. We need to fix it. I am committing the rest of my life to try to fix this because I think the failure of our politics has gotten to a point where it’s representative of a national security threat. Right on the level of ISIS, right on the level of nuclear proliferation, right on the level of North Korea. This is a national security threat.   

What do you mean by that? What's the national security threat?

When was the last time that we looked at our budget? Not just our debt crisis and the way that poses a long-term threat to our national security, but our inability over the last decade or more to pass long-term budget solutions to issues. So what inevitably happens is that we are unable to move money from bucket to bucket to bucket in response to evolving national security threats.

We don’t see people partnering to solve problems, whether it’s criminal justice reform or investments in our infrastructure. Our infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes. The first Interstate Highway Act was actually a national defense act, because we needed to move soldiers throughout the country. Today we allow our infrastructure to crumble year after year because we are sending people to Washington who genuinely are putting their own careers before the future of this country, and the future of their parties ahead of the future of this country.

So forgive me for being an optimist. I think if we were to whittle down the core of your question it was, "Max, why do you think it could get any better?"   

I was a bit more specifically asking like why you feel the current situation is a threat to national security.  

Well, I think that it’s clear as day that if we are not able to put the election behind us, convene around the table and talk about the major threats facing us in the 21st century -- and nobody who watches news thinks we’re capable of doing that today. Nobody! If we can't have a functioning government, if we’re unable to actually respond to threats both present and future, then I consider that a grave national security threat.      

You mentioned criminal justice and I want to dig into this a little. You were saying that one of the biggest problems facing your district right now is gun violence. There’s a lot of movement right now, especially on the liberal left, toward criminal justice reform, getting people out of jail. How do you balance the need to fight crime and gun violence with the need to end mass incarceration?

Sure. Let’s take a step back as well. As we talk about the threat of gun violence and mass shootings, these are all over the news and children are genuinely afraid in so many different communities to go to school. They’re afraid they’re going to get shot on the way to math class. So what we are looking at is gun violence prevention, which requires a federal solution. You can’t just do this at the standard local level, so let me run through a few things that I think need to happen in regard to gun violence.

The first is that an AR-15, and assault weapons in general, should never be sold in this country ever again. Plain and simple. I’ve used this weapon in combat. I’ve held it in combat and its purpose is to kill a lot of people. But that alone doesn’t solve the issue of gun violence. There’s mass shootings that don’t involve assault weapons. We all know that. We need universal background checks in this country. We need magazine capacity limits. We need to end the Tiahrt Amendment. Right now the NYPD cannot have access to gun crime trace data.

The vast majority of weapons retrieved from gun crimes in New York City originate from down south and come up the iron pipeline. We have no way to address that. We need to start electing people who are willing to do something about this problem because it’s not going to go away, whether it's individual handgun violence in inner-city America or mass shootings using assault weapons. This problem requires a solution generally when it comes to criminal justice reform in this country. There should not be a conflict, and there is not a conflict, between community policing and criminal justice reform and being strong on public safety.

In fact, quite to the contrary, if we talk about reducing the recidivism rate in this country, which now, depending on what year, is anywhere from 50 percent to two-thirds. Nobody wants people to go back to prison and commit crimes again. If we are talking about how to rehabilitate people, how to get them back into the community, in jobs, that not only saves us money, that not only is ethical but it also keeps cops safer too. If you look at the states that have enacted significant gun legislation, cop deaths and injuries from gun violence have gone down significantly.

I see no conflict with this. As you analyze the landscape of issues before Congress, criminal justice reform is actually an area where there is the most potential for bipartisan legislation.   

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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