Back from Afghanistan, Jewish veteran faces fresh battle for Congress

NEW YORK — If all goes according to plan, on January 3, 2019, Max Rose will swear to support and defend the US Constitution as a Democratic congressional representative for Staten Island’s 11th District.

It wouldn’t be the first time the 30 year old swore to protect the now 228-year-old document. Back in 2010, fresh from completing a degree in philosophy and public policy at the London School of Economics, Rose enlisted in the US Army.

And so began five years of active duty with the 1st Armored Division, where he earned a Ranger tab, Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service in Afghanistan. It also began a tour of duty that he described as challenging, rewarding, and perhaps most of all, a privilege, he said.

“I know this sounds cliché but whether it was around the kitchen table or wherever families talk, it was always a question of the outside world around us and how can you live a life of service to improve the lives of others,” Rose said over coffee at the Bus Stop Café in Manhattan. “From a very early time in my life, there was this notion that ‘to he whom something is given, something is expected of them.’”

That something manifested itself as a student organizer while an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, as a combat infantry officer in Afghanistan from 2012-2013, as Director of Public Engagement and Special Assistant to the late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, and currently as Chief of Staff at Brightpoint Health, which operates non-profit health-care clinics across Staten Island.

And now that “something” is a mission to unseat incumbent Republican representative Daniel Donovan.

In the 2018 midterm elections, the Democrats must win 24 seats to flip the House from Red to Blue.

And while the Staten Island seat has gone Republican in every election since 1980 — save for a two-year span in 2008-2010 — Rose is confident his focus on the economy, health care and the military will resonate with voters.

“People have lost their faith in the system. This is such an important time. We are at such a crossroads. There is a shared overriding sense that government is broken. People feel politicians don’t care, they don’t see them having passion and commitment and the dedication [people] deserve,” he said.

Before he can even ready for a campaign against Donovan, he will have to beat a crowded primary field.

Rose faces special education teacher and former police officer Mike Decillis; Michael DeVito, Jr., a former Marine who runs a nonprofit; Zach Emig, a bond trader; former professional boxer and Army reserve officer Boyd Melson; and Paul Sperling, who works in real estate.

While the district is one of dozens nationwide targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, whoever the challenger is will face an uphill battle.

While the 11th, which includes all of Staten Island and a part of south Brooklyn, tends to vote Democrat in local and state elections, it leans Republican for national elections. In 2010 it elected Michael Grimm, who resigned in 2015 after pleading guilty to a federal tax fraud charge. Grimm is now trying to make a comeback and announced he will challenge Donovan in the primary.  Donovan, the former Staten Island district attorney, won the congressional seat in a special election in May of 2015 and was re-elected in 2016.

The district went heavily in favor of President Donald Trump in 2016. He received 57 percent of the vote compared with 40% who voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

None of that appears to faze Rose.

Staten Island is “beautifully complex. Staten Islanders are very proud that they don’t vote automatically for any one party. The folks in my district are smart. They want to see results,” he said.

Calling fundraising “a very unfortunate part of politics,” Rose has come to accept it as necessary to communicate ideas. He raised $320,000 in three months, said his campaign manager Kevin Elkins.

From Brooklyn bubble to Afghanistan bunker

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Rose is a fourth generation New Yorker. His paternal grandfather, a Russian Jew, left Odessa, (then part of Russia, now part of Ukraine) when he was barely 14 and carried little more than a suitcase. He entered the diner business and opened Kellogg Diner. The diner was sold long ago.

He recalled a moment during training at Fort Benning, Georgia, when he went to Shabbat morning services and was surprised to see the pews crowded with fellow service members.Growing up in a traditional home, Rose had a Bar Mitzvah and visited Israel.

“You know, you grow up in Brooklyn, go to school at Wesleyan, you think there are a lot of Jews! Then I noticed outside there was a table filled with bagels and lox,” he said, laughing at the memory.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan it was understood one didn’t advertise one’s Judaism.

His decision to enlist after graduate school raised a few eyebrows.

We value service but we don’t put military service as an option

“A culture has emerged in many parts of this country where we value service but we don’t put military service as an option. I saw that as very prevalent in New York City, in universities and certainly in the graduate school I attended. And when I decided to join that only became clearer,” said Rose.

“People would subject me to an inquisition: ‘Why are you doing this?’ And then they would say something I was just fascinated with: ‘You’re going to be the smartest one in the room.’ If anything I found it was quite the opposite. To this day I’m humbled and awed by the unbelievable people that serve. And in many of these bubbles we live in, that’s not understood,” he added.

If elected Rose would not leave the military. He currently serves in reserves as the head of supply and logistics in the 69th Infantry Battalion, the second oldest unit in the United States and New York City’s only infantry battalion.

The Rose platform

Through his work in health care on Staten Israel, Rose has come to the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act is flawed. High cost premiums, copays and deductibles remain a problem.

His emphasis on education — and desire to decrease loans and increase access to vocational schools — isn’t a surprise given he comes from a long line of educators.

His great-grandmother was one of Brooklyn’s first female principals, his grandmother was a teacher in Harlem for 40 years; his mother is a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, teaching social welfare policy. His aunt is a public school teacher and his sister is working towards a PhD in education at City University New York.

Rose is also involved in the Occupy the Block, a program that supports stricter gun control measures.

With nearly 60% of Americans favoring stricter gun control laws, including universal background checks, banning firearm permits for those on the terrorist no fly list, and banning bump stocks, he said there is tremendous consensus around the issue. But there is also tremendous distrust.

There is no trust on either side of the political spectrum and if we don’t mend that trust deficit we don’t stand a chance of fixing this

“I talk to my buddies in the military, my fellow vets, who are gun lovers in many ways. I’ve been to plenty of ranges with them. And they say, ‘You’re going to do that [tighten laws] but then the next thing I know you’re going to take my weapons.’ There is no trust on either side of the political spectrum and if we don’t mend that trust deficit we don’t stand a chance of fixing this,” he said.

As military minded and proud of his service Rose is, he bristles at the way veterans are used as political props — from Trump accepting a Purple Heart from a veteran during a campaign rally to his demand that NFL players stand during the National Anthem.

“When he equated military service to something from his reality show…” Rose said, leaving the sentence unfinished with a shake of his head.

“I think about it always, every day, the men and women I served with. People who today are not the same people they were when they first joined the military. And a medal doesn’t do anything to give them that back. What we have to do is not say ‘I would love a purple heart myself.’ Nobody wants that,” he said.

Instead the nation needs to honor veterans by producing a system that matches their sacrifice, he said.

“We need to see our veterans not as national treasures, but as national assets,” said Rose. “We need to start to embrace hundreds of thousands of veterans living at here at home who shouldered an incredible amount of responsibility. Let’s put them to work.”

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