Why Max Rose Can't Talk About Andrew Cuomo

On the very expensive and very nasty House race in New York City

In September, Max Rose’s congressional campaign released another television advertisement blasting his Republican opponent, Nicole Malliotakis. In the ad, Rose attacks Malliotakis, a state assemblywoman, for failing to respond adequately to the COVID-19 pandemic. The kicker of the ad, which aired repeatedly in the tri-state area, is quite severe: Malliotakis voted to cut funding to hospitals as coronavirus spread across the city and help safeguard the problematic nursing home industry.

“She voted to cut hospitals by $400 million at the height of the pandemic and passed a law to protect shady nursing homes that put seniors at risk,” the narrator says. “It’s everything you hate about politics, all in one person. Nicole Malliotakis: the first class fraud.”

Rose, a first-term congressman, is fighting for his life in the 11th Congressional District, which ropes in Staten Island and Southern Brooklyn, including my childhood home of Bay Ridge. When I ran for State Senate, my district largely overlapped with Rose’s, and when we knocked on doors in the spring and summer of 2018, we could often talk to the same people. Rose has raised far more money than any Democrat in that congressional district’s history and probably, at this point, more than any Republican ever: Rose and his allies have aired almost $11 million in ads, and anyone who spends time watching television or surfing the internet in the general area has encountered Rose’s face numerous times at this point.

The race, in a year that Donald Trump tops the ticket, is inordinately competitive and nasty—no surprise, given the reality it is not only the most contested congressional seat in New York City but perhaps in the entire state. Two years ago, Rose dethroned a Republican incumbent, Dan Donovan, capitalizing on a surge in Democratic turnout in the smaller Brooklyn chunk of the district. Though versions of the House seat have been reliably held by the GOP since the dawn of the 1980s, it has evolved into a classic swing district. Barack Obama won it in 2012 and Trump rolled to victory there in 2016. The South Shore of Staten Island, largely white, is one of the greatest bastions of Trump support in New York; the North Shore, mostly nonwhite, is very Democratic. The Brooklyn slice, once hostile to progressives, will be ground zero for another blue wave. Given Rose’s fundraising ability and incumbency advantage, he should be the favorite to win. The race will likely come down to the performance at the top of the ticket. Joe Biden, who is less hated than Hillary Clinton, shouldn’t be too much of a drag on Rose, though Trump’s Staten Island popularity should buoy Malliotakis to some degree. There are still ticket splitters in the district. Like everywhere else, however, they are quickly vanishing.

Rose has run, at first blush, an unconventional campaign. He has won praise and attracted scorn as the independent sort of Democrat willing to stick his thumb in the eye of the party. He voted against Nancy Pelosi for speaker. He cut that ad about Bill de Blasio being the worst mayor in the history of New York City. He calls out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He sneered at millennial political activists as “privileged hipster socialists living in gentrified neighborhoods.” He has spoken nicely, at times, about Donald Trump, at least when it comes to killing certain people. A combat veteran with a pugnacious streak, he portrays himself as a tribune of blue collar common sense—let’s grab a beer buddy and get down to bleeping business. He’s the kind of narrative reporters love, and he knows this. One senses he is deep into a role he understands he can’t quit now. In a district that Trump won by 10 points, the shtick has a willing audience.

My politics don’t align with Max Rose’s politics, but I have respect for him. Up close, I saw how hard Rose worked, rising from anonymous aspirant to formidable House candidate in a matter of months. This stuff doesn’t happen magically. Rose and I both attended the prestigious and highly expensive Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, but he was three years ahead of me and we never mingled there. (A generous family member helped pay my way through; I grew up in a Bay Ridge co-op.) Rose grew up very comfortably in Park Slope, a galaxy or so away from Victory Boulevard. He attended Wesleyan and the London School of Economics, shipped off to Afghanistan and was decorated for his valor, and returned to work as a healthcare executive. He was also a staffer to Ken Thompson, the late Brooklyn district attorney. Rose moved to Staten Island not long before his 2018 campaign. To his credit, he saw an opportunity and took it. The borough’s Democratic Party has been pathetic for decades and the few elected officials there, like State Senator Diane Savino, would rather foil progressive Democrats in Albany than represent the area in Washington. Though a child of privilege, Rose highlighted his military experience to connect with working class voters. He was also a prolific fundraiser, something no Democrat on Staten Island had ever been. While he undoubtedly began the race well-connected among a certain class of elite donor, Rose put in the serious, exhausting work to raise the millions necessary to win the seat. He easily won a Democratic primary to secure the nomination, besting candidates who didn’t apply themselves in the same way. He single-handedly built a winning campaign. The local Democratic parties, in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and the local elected officials were mostly useless. I can attest to his indefatigable nature on the trail. If there was a campaign event I showed up at—I took pride in trying to be everywhere—he tended to be there too. He hustled.

Rose campaigned as a centrist and won as a centrist, riding an anti-Trump wave to victory. He never supported Medicare for All and generally seemed disdainful of the progressive movement, though many Park Slope liberals showed up in 2018 to knock doors for him. What’s been odd to see, for me at least, is how many media outlets have portrayed Rose. Rather than explain him for what he is—a savvy operator following wherever internal polls will take him—he is shown instead to be a fierce independent, taking risks by defying his party. No political position Rose has assumed as a congressman, though, is perilous. In a Trump-friendly district, the real risk would be voting for Pelosi, supporting de Blasio, and chest-bumping over socialism. It would be showing up for photos with AOC or maybe fellow Poly alum Jabari Brisport.

It would be maybe—just maybe—making an enemy of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo rammed through the very budget Rose attacks in the television ad mentioned at the beginning of this piece. The hospital cuts—to Medicaid in particular—were Cuomo’s cuts, engineered entirely by his office. State lawmakers are complicit in voting for a bad budget, but everyone who understands the machinations of Albany knows the governor’s office wields great power over the budget-making process. Cuomo is infamous for inserting dubious provisions into the budget just before its passage. State lawmakers can shoot the budget down (I’ve argued, in the past, they should do this) but the beginning of April, when the budget was finalized, was the height of the pandemic. New York needed some kind of framework and state lawmakers were in a bind. They should have drove a harder bargain, yes. The Democrats who control the State Senate and the Assembly could have, certainly. Malliotakis, a member of the Republican minority, is powerless in Albany. Her role, for a decade, has been one of a bystander. There’s a reason she’s eager to get out of there.

Rose disingenuously pinned a destructive state budget on Malliotakis when he knows, as well as anyone, who has been trying to close hospitals for a decade and slash Medicaid funding. If Rose has picked up a newspaper or read any reporting over the last six months, he knows too that the blanket immunity nursing homes and hospitals won from lawsuits was entirely Cuomo’s doing, a concession to the influential healthcare lobby. Cuomo’s office put the provision in the state budget. This is inarguable. It’s good that Rose recognizes cutting funding to public hospitals and protecting the healthcare industry from lawsuits are both deleterious. More hospital capacity could have saved lives. Malliotakis, like much of the legislature, took a vote she should regret. But blaming her for this catastrophe is like accosting the infantryman for the invasion launched by the five-star general. Rose should know better. He probably does.

Cuomo appears nowhere in Rose’s ads or stump speeches. De Blasio is everywhere. We know why. The mayor of New York City, by default, always invites more scrutiny and usually becomes more hated over time. De Blasio, a Democrat, was bound for infamy on Staten Island, where aggrievement is second nature. Malliotakis lost her 2017 mayoral race to de Blasio in a landslide but won Staten Island. Cuomo, conversely, is hated less. He is not blamed for the ills of the city and his disdain of overt liberalism probably endears him, or at least makes him less irksome, to the borough’s conservative base. Cuomo is much more powerful than de Blasio and will outlast him. He may very well outlast Rose. Rose understands the fate of his district is tied to decisions made by the state’s most dominant governor since Nelson Rockefeller. The brash, punchy independent—that purveyor of so many F-bombs—goes silent when real power enters the room. Like many of the Democrats he derides, Rose is unable to muster resistance when it matters most. That’s a shame. If he gets a second term and New York has a new mayor, Rose will have to find another punching bag. De Blasio, the proverbial fish in the barrel, is too easy to shoot. Rose is wasting his bullets.