NEW YORK (AP) — He’s an Army veteran who was wounded in Afghanistan, criticizes New York’s liberal mayor and doesn’t support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Those are winning attributes for a politician in Trump Country, but the candidate in question, Max Rose, is a Democrat trying to unseat the only Republican member of Congress from New York City.
For all the national talk of a liberal “blue wave” in next month’s midterm election, Rose is part of a large corps of moderate Democrats who are playing up military experience and independence from their own party in districts that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016.
“I am a Democrat, sure,” said Rose. “That does not preclude me from pointing out the fact that this country and this district have been failed by Democrats and Republicans alike.”
His campaign against U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan in a district that includes all of Staten Island, the city’s most conservative borough, plus a slice a Brooklyn, has been built around centrist priorities like rebuilding infrastructure, modest gun control reforms and doing more to combat the opioid addiction epidemic.
It has included a brochure accusing Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio of “ignoring Staten Island and South Brooklyn,” but doesn’t mention Trump or his polarizing policies.
“That is not a strategic decision, but it is rooted in the reality that our problems did not begin with this president,” Rose said in an interview in his Brooklyn campaign office. “The fact that the R train right outside of this office is late more than it’s on time, the fact that we lost 72,000 people last year and thousands, tens of thousands, the year before that to overdoses, the fact that we lose tens of thousands of people every year to gun violence, mass shootings and otherwise … those problems did not begin with the president.”
Donovan, a lifelong Staten Islander, has also played up party independence in the race — a nod to the fact that Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans in the district.
But he has also suggested that Rose is more liberal than he lets on and charged that the 31-year-old moved to the borough only to run for Congress.
“He’s not one of us,” a narrator intones in one Donovan campaign ad.
In an interview with the AP, Donovan, who was Staten Island’s district attorney before getting elected to Congress in 2015, said of Rose that he’s “grateful for his service to our nation,” but “that doesn’t qualify you to be a member of Congress.”
“I just ask people to look at what Dan Donovan has done for 22 years in this community,” he said.
Rose, the son of a medical laboratory executive father and a social work professor mother, grew up across the harbor from Staten Island in Brooklyn, where he attended the private Poly Prep Country Day School and was a captain of the wrestling team.
“He was a great example. Very coachable,” said his former coach, Konstantin Avdeev. “We used to call him an old man in a young mans’ body.”
Rose went to Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut, and the London School of Economics, where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy and public policy.
Those schools send relatively few graduates to the U.S. Army, but that’s where Rose headed after college.
Despite his highbrow education, Rose said he was in fact “the worst soldier in basic training,” a raw recruit who had never carried a weapon and couldn’t use a compass.
“It took me a while to become a proficient soldier but I still feel to this day that the Army gives me far more than I could ever give it each and every day,” he said.
He earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star after he suffered injuries when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2013. He remains a captain in the National Guard and took two weeks off from campaigning in August for training exercises. He moved to Staten Island after leaving active service in 2015.
Knocking on doors in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood, Rose introduced himself as a veteran. Some voters were receptive — though one man with a Wounded Warriors sticker on his mailbox wouldn’t open the door.
“I’m very patriotic and I’m just very proud of him, what he has done for our country,” said one neighborhood resident, Annemarie Rossi.
Rose is one of 19 veterans supported by a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee program targeting swing districts. Others include Mikie Sherrill, a Navy veteran running for an open seat in New Jersey, and Amy McGrath, a retired Marine seating to unseat Republican incumbent Andy Barr in Kentucky.
Jeremy Teigen, a professor of political science at Ramapo College of New Jersey and the author of “Why Veterans Run: Military Service in American Presidential Elections 1789-2016,” called Donovan’s district “exactly the kind of place where people can use military service as a cue to prime them to think of a Democrat as somebody who could be credible on national defense issues.”
But Richard Flanagan, a professor of political science at the College of Staten Island and co-author of “Staten Island: Conservative Bastion in a Liberal City,” said Donovan could be tough to beat. He won the district by 25 points in 2016.
“It’s very Trumpy out here,” Flanagan said.