It was the first week of October, and the division of the nation was intensifying daily, with the FBI investigating Brett Kavanagh, the Times exposing President Donald Trump’s history of tax schemes, Fox News heralding a new North American trade deal. A perfect time to take an express bus over the Verrazano Bridge.
Staten Island, the only county in the city that went for Trump in 2016, is also home to the city’s one contested general election race for Congress. The 11th District, which covers Staten Island and parts of South Brooklyn, is one of the nine races, out of New York State’s 27 House seats, believed to be competitive, according to published reports. While FiveThirtyEight says there’s a 3 in 4 chance the Republicans will reelect Dan Donovan, the current Republican incumbent, his challenger on the Democratic ticket, Max Rose, is running a vigorous campaign and has managed to out-fundraise Donovan. A CNN forecaster puts the race slightly closer: while FiveThirtyEight predicts Donovan will win with a 4.5 point lead, CNN predicts a lead of 3 points. (In addition to Donovan and Rose, Henry Bardel is running on the Green Party ticket.)
Staten Island is certainly far redder than the other boroughs, but at least statistically, it’s a complicated place. Officially, the borough only has only about 90,000 active registered Republicans and Conservatives and about 124,000 active registered Democrats and Working Family Party members, but more than a few of those Democrats are Trump supporters. Independents and unaffiliated voters make up 24 percent of Staten Island voters, a rate slightly higher than the other boroughs. Staten Island has voted for a Democratic president three out of 13 times since 1964, including Obama in 2012, but in 2016, an additional 27,000 Staten Islanders headed to the polls, and the county went for Trump; he beat Clinton with 101,000 votes to her 74,000. (See here the New York Times’ detailed map of which Staten island election districts went for Trump.)
The candidates for Congress are themselves multi-faceted. Democratic activists across the country are backing 31-year-old Rose as part of an overall strategy to take back the House from Republicans in the midterms, and the candidate recently received Joe Biden and Barack Obama’s endorsement. Donovan has sought to use this to his opponent’s disadvantage, accusing him of being funded by Nancy Pelosi’s “wealthy San Francisco donors and the Washington liberals whose far-left values are completely out-of-touch with the residents of Staten Island South Brooklyn.”
But Rose has positioned himself as independent from both left and right. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan with a shaved head and a Purple Heart, Rose grew up in Brooklyn and moved to Staten Island in late 2014 after returning from active duty. He has critiqued the president’s tax bill and failure to pass an infrastructure plan, but has also taken shots at Mayor Bill de Blasio, demanding the mayor take steps to reduce congestion and create a new recreation center to replace the North Shore’s collapsed Cromwell Center. “From City Hall to Washington D.C., we need new leadership that brings us into the future, not one that screws over and ignores the American people,” he said in a press release. While campaigning on issues like stopping gun violence, improving transportation and addressing the opioid epidemic, he’s also clearly blue when it comes to things like climate change and abortion rights.
As for the 61-year-old incumbent, Donovan heartily welcomed Trump’s endorsement but he hasn’t always seen eye to eye with the president. He originally favored John Kasich in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, and voted against Trump’s tax bill due to the burden it would place on Staten Islanders because of the changes to deductions for state and local taxes. He also broke with Trump some other times including, among others, by voting against the repeal of Obamacare, against a couple bills liberalizing gun regulations and another loosening a labor regulation. His website characterizes the former Richmond County district attorney as a law-and-order man who supports tax cuts and reigning in debt, a strong military presence and resources for veterans, fair work agreements for civil workers, and funding transportation on Staten Island.
In setting out across the Verrazano, this reporter had a few questions in mind: how have national events influenced Staten Islanders’ political leanings? What local issues would bear weight on this year’s race? Did Staten Islanders see themselves at the crux of a national battle over the control of Congress, or were they merely trying to pick the candidate that suited them best?
Nowhere is a better barometer than the 63rd Assembly District, situated in Mid-Island between the mostly Democratic North Shore, the mostly Republican South Shore, and west of the also mixed East Shore. The 63rd District was the one district on Staten Island that went for Obama in 2012 but Trump in 2016; in that sense, it mirrors the swing states that delivered the White House to Trump. It’s represented by a Democratic State Assemblymember and a Republican State Senator, and contains about 34,000 active registered Democrats, 21,000 active registered Republicans, and 19,000 active independent or non-affiliated voters. According to census data for the borough’s Neighborhood Tabulation Areas (which don’t perfectly correlate with the Assembly district lines), 57 percent of residents are white, as compared to 32 percent of New York City as a whole, and the median income is about $74,000, as compared to the city’s $55,000 median income.
Wandering around the suburban streets and shopping malls of the 63rd, this reporter spoke to roughly 30 voters, both those from the district and those visiting from surrounding areas, constituting a mix of Donovan supporters, Rose fans, and the undecided. Those conversations reveal that while Staten Islanders across the political spectrum share many of the same local concerns, who they’ll pick for Congress depends most on their impressions of the candidates, their values and national news. It appeared that most of those who voted for Trump were very satisfied by the administration and many glad to put their faith in Donovan, while Rose was exciting both Clinton supporters and some frustrated with the Democratic establishment.
For a deeper dive into Donovan and Rose’s stances, voters can tune in to NY1 for the first televised debate on Tuesday, October 16 at 7 p.m.
National politics looms large in race
Predictably, the majority of Donovan supporters were Trump fans, and the majority of Rose supporters Trump-haters, with varying levels of familiarity with the candidates themselves.
“I kind of hate the Democrats…I don’t want to see the House and the Senate lose their majority,” said Kevin Cunningham, a resident of a neighborhood on the Mid-Island/North Shore border who works in sales and recently became a registered Republican. While he didn’t know much about Donovan or Rose’s platforms, he said, “Trump is doing an excellent job and he needs to have people who will back him up.” The economy, he said is “doing absolutely fantastic,” Trump’s renegotiated trade deals will benefit the nation, and Democrats have a habit of preaching free speech but not practicing it—though Cunningham also supports gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose.
John Magill, a registered Republican resident of the East Shore who works in title insurance, said Rose, “served his country and is a good man, and that doesn’t make him qualified to be a congressman.” (After returning from Afghanistan, Rose worked for the late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson and then at Brightpoint Health, a nonprofit healthcare organization. He is also a company commander for the National Guard.) Magill also noted Donovan’s experience as Staten Island’s District Attorney from 2004 through 2015, and like Cunningham, he thought Trump was “fantastic” and had “kept all his campaign promises.”
Laura Keller, a 51-year-old X-ray technician from Mid-Island who is a conservative, registered-Republican Trump-supporter, said it originally concerned her that Donovan hadn’t always taken Trump’s positions, but that she’d spoken to one of Donovan’s campaign team members and had been assured that Donovan was now more closely aligned with Trump. Keller also noted that the economy was thriving and dismissed the notion that only corporations were benefiting, saying that restaurants were crowded and people shopping. She added that Rose seemed like a centrist, but she couldn’t support him because he would still caucus with the Democrats. (Asked if it were true Donovan had become more closely aligned with Trump, a campaign spokesperson said in an e-mail that Donovan had voted in line with the President’s positions 90 percent of the time and “supports the President’s America First agenda, however, he is not afraid to speak up when he has not agreed. He votes with the residents of the district 100% of the time and if something isn’t in the best interests of his constituents he will fight against it, regardless of party.” According to FiveThirtyEight’s tally, Donovan has voted alongside Trump 87 percent of the time—while actually 208 of the currently seated 235 House Republicans have voted alongside Trump in higher percentages.)
It was rare to find a Trump supporter who seemed disappointed with the administration, though Angela Scopelliti, a South Shore resident who voted for Trump, noted that while she feels Trump is “getting things done,” she recently changed her party from Republican to Independent because a personal experience lead her to conclude that “more services are needed for people,” such as people with disabilities. She’s still intending to vote for Donovan, saying he’s “doing a good job.” And a 73-year-old woman from Mid-Island (who would not give her name or disclose who she’d pick for Congress) said she’d voted for Trump and was mostly satisfied with the state of affairs but was distressed by all Trump’s posts on social media.
A surprising number of Donovan supporters were registered as Democrats. These were voters who said they hailed from working class or immigrant families who had long ago supported the Democrats, but that over time, they’d lost faith in the Democratic party, and that they were strong supporters of Trump. Robert F. Kennedy—”That’s the only Democrat that I voted for,” said registered Democrat Anthony Delvecchio, a retired businessman who lives on the Mid-Island/East Shore border, supports Trump and thus will go with Donovan. Mike Ahr, a retired policeman and registered Democrat from the Mid-Island/North Shore border, also supported Trump and said that with the Democrats these days, “There are no more rules. Anyone can do what anyone wants to do at any given time.” As for Donovan, “he’s doing a good job” and does what’s best for the district whether or not he agrees with the president.
Among those interviewed were some one-time Obama supporters who were now fans of Trump. Stacey Riggio of the South Shore, a registered Republican and Trump voter who planned to vote for Donovan, said Obama had disappointed her when, she alleged, he had passed billions under the table to Iran and granted “amnesty” to illegal immigrants. (According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration did give $1.7 billion to satisfy an outstanding claim by Iran for military equipment that was not delivered. The decision can be criticized, but Congress looked into the matter and concluded the former president had not broken any laws. On immigration, Obama did attempt to delay the deportation of undocumented immigrants through programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), but he also formally removed more immigrants than President George W. Bush.)
On the other side of the spectrum, Reuven Weiss, a registered Democrat on the Mid-Island/East Shore border, said he was supporting Rose because “we need a new voice” as well as “someone who goes against what the administration is doing.” A Clinton voter, he was upset with everything from Trump’s dismantling of environmental regulations to Republican voter disenfranchisement efforts, but as a retired DC 37 Local 1189 member (the government psychologist union), he was particularly distressed by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Janus case, a major blow to union power. And yes, riding the so-called “blue wave” was important to him, too.
The power of unions was also a concern for veteran and retired union truck driver Albert Morello, a registered Democrat resident of the South Shore who said he also appreciates Rose’s service in the military. And Rommy Cruz of Mid-Island, a MTA train operator who will vote Democrat, said that with Republicans, “everything’s for the rich.” He added that tariffs on China might cause the price of consumer goods to go up and hurt the lower classes, and that Trump “looks like he’s going toward World War III.” In addition, an Independent who gave a first name, Sherry, complained Donovan was too much a Republican, that she’d voted for Obama and Clinton and would pick Rose, and called Trump “absolutely a disgrace,” citing her support of gun control and Roe vs. Wade.
Registered Democrats Carlton and Joann Ferebee of the North Shore were not picking Rose because of a desire to see the house go “blue.” They were attracted by Rose’s service in the military, and wanted to support a new voice, but had more complicated feelings toward the Trump administration: though they’d supported Clinton and found Trump’s comments could be abrasive and irritating, they too were impressed by the improvements in the economy, and a little suspicious of the Democrats’ handling of the Kavanagh hearings.
Rose may get some votes that Hillary Clinton did not. “I don’t like incumbents. They’re too comfortable,” said Michel Aubertin from the North Shore/Mid-Island border, who explained he appreciates Rose’s dedication to service. He said he votes based on the issues and is less concerned with reclaiming Democratic control of the House; while a registered Democrat, he gave his vote to Jill Stein instead of supporting Clinton. “[Clinton] had that air about her that she deserved to be in office,” he said. Some issues he identified as important included police brutality, the influence of PACs on the political process, and protection of the environment, among others.
Several voters knew Rose as the man who wanted to throw out everyone—and this appealed to a few of the Democrats. It also amused a Mid-Island Independent who gave her name as Flo. A former Obama and then Kasich supporter, she wasn’t totally sure how to vote and thought Donovan would probably win, but admitted, “I like [Rose’s] spunk” and felt new people deserved a chance. As for the president, “he might be doing a lot of good for the country, but when he opens his mouth, he ruins it,” especially with his disrespect for women, she said.
“I’m genuinely one of those independent purple voting folks who’s torn,” said a 33-year-old North Shore resident who asked to remain anonymous. “If I go for Donovan, it would be to continue with the continued growth in the economy. If I go to Rose, it would be saying, I want a change in the status quo” including “impeachment.” (In an interview on NY1, Rose said that due to the ongoing investigation of the administration, he couldn’t comment on whether he’d support impeachment, and that he’d be willing to work with Trump to achieve shared priorities.)
Personal connections matter a lot to some voters. Catherine, a Democrat who lives on the North Shore, was impressed that Rose came to her house, while as for Donovan, she said, “I haven’t seen this guy.” She says she’ll vote for Rose “because of the policies that he has and he’s a much better candidate,” in addition to the fact that she opposes the Trump administration.
Still others who were undecided were Trump-supporters not yet ready to pick a candidate, or said their votes would be influenced by their pro-life stance, or explained they were not adequately informed about politics.
One in this last group was Carmelo, an electrical company worker of Mid-Island. He said he hadn’t voted in past elections, though he might vote this November. Trump had “brought a lot of attention to the subject of politics” by doing new things all the time, he said. “I don’t remember [Obama] doing anything significant other than Obamacare.”
Shared concerns about Staten Island
While they weren’t often the key factor in voters’ decisions in the upcoming race for Congress, Staten Islanders of all political persuasions shared the same set of concerns about their borough: inadequate transportation, overcrowding, and for many, the raging opioid epidemic.
Other New Yorkers may not be aware of the gravity of Staten Island’s opioid crisis. In 2016, Staten Island had not only the highest overdose rate in New York City; it also surpassed even the worst affected U.S. states, including West Virginia and Utah, according to a report by Columbia University, with 116 people dying of opioid overdoses in 2016.
“I lost my brother last year to it,” said Anthony Parez, an East Shore resident who voted for Jill Stein and will support Max Rose. He said he hoped to see a crackdown on the epidemic, national Medicare for all, and, given its medical benefits, the legalization of marijuana.
Cunningham, one of the Donovan and Trump-supporters, said his sister and many friends had died of overdoses. “It’s a plague. You have these pharmaceutical companies pushing it.” He explained that doctors don’t tell people they’re going to get addicted, and then those patients begin buying opioids on the street and finally, seeking a cheaper option, turn to heroin. He said an alternative, non-addictive pain killing medication is urgently needed. “Something needs to be done. I don’t have the answer, but I think if people got together collectively and put their minds together—something really needs to be done.”
The Columbia report said the crisis is associated with areas that have a “high penetration of health insurance,” which gives people access to doctors who may overprescribe opioids, leading to addiction—perhaps a reason why Staten Islanders, many of whom are municipal government employees with good access to health insurance, have been greatly impacted. Other contributing factors to the crisis cited by the report include the stigma surrounding addiction that leads people to avoid treatment, comorbidity (the presence of simultaneous medical or mental health issues including first responders’ trauma from 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy), boredom among youth, and the presence of fentanyl-laced heroin.
In March, the Trump administration announced it would take a three-pronged approach to tackling the opioid crisis, including taking steps to reduce demand and over-prescription, expanding treatment options, and fighting drug trafficking across borders and prosecuting criminal manufacturers and doctors—including dismantling sanctuary cities, which Trump called a haven for “illegal immigrants and drug dealers.” Under his leadership, the Department of Justice would also pursue the use of the death penalty on the biggest drug traffickers, and the White House would work with Congress to raise the threshold for mandatory minimum sentences for the opioid fentanyl, triggering minimum prison times for lower amounts of fentanyl possession. While some have criticized this “drug war”-style crack-down, Donovan praised the initiative and noted he’d sponsored a bill to reduce the mandatory minimum threshold.
Asked what she thought of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, Keller, a Trump and Donovan supporter, said, “I don’t know if it should be measured by quantity … Sellers should be put away. Users, I think, should go by the individual … Does this person have a problem, does this person need help?” suggesting that perhaps users ought to be going to required treatment institutions instead of jail. Of course, the problem, as some commentators point out, is that sometimes addicts and sellers can be the same people. Keller acknowledged this was “a tough one” and posed a combination of jail time and rehabilitation.
Cunningham, though a Trump-supporter, said he doesn’t particularly like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and doesn’t support mandatory minimum drug laws, saying people should be evaluated on a case by case basis, though he too agreed with harsher punishment for sellers and noted that opioid pills are a much more dangerous drug than marijuana.
The opioid crisis has been an issue in the 11th District race, with both candidates promising a multi-pronged approach. In the Staten Island Advance, Donovan emphasized his work as district attorney prosecuting drug sellers, starting a pilot program to equip police officers with the life-saving counterdrug Naloxone, and helping facilitate a successful drug treatment court. As a Congressman, he’s worked to pass legislation—in June, the House passed 35 bills to combat the opioid crisis—and voted to approve a FY2018 omnibus spending bill with $4 billion dedicated to addressing the crisis. According to NY1, in a 2015 debate, he also emphasized that as district attorney he “put more people in treatment than we did in jail because of their addictions.”
But Rose has criticized Donovan’s record, accusing him of not taking the epidemic seriously as a district attorney, and has slammed Donovan for receiving donations from executives of large pharmaceutical corporations (Donovan’s campaign said they were unaware of the donations but that they would be immediately donated to drug treatment programs.)
Rose has also pointed to his work at a healthcare organization that treats substance abuse, told the Advance that he will fight for $10 billion in discretionary spending on the crisis, and on his website offers a 10-point platform for tackling the epidemic, including everything from expanding clinics on Staten Island, to launching a federal lawsuit against pharmaceutical corporations. He also supports removing mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenses.
For Mid-Island resident Aubertin, a Rose supporter, the pharma donations to Donovan were a big concern. “You can’t take the money of these corporations without being held accountable to what they represent at the end of the day.” Magill, a Republican Donovan supporter, dismissed such concerns, noting Donovan’s strength as a district attorney and implying Rose had not actually implemented any policies.
A perhaps more mundane headache is Staten Island’s transportation woes: The express bus to Manhattan costs $6.50, every bridge to the island requires a toll, and residents complain of endless traffic on roads and highways. Several bridges on the Staten Island Expressway are soon to be renovated, but a recent MTA effort to revamp the bus system seemed to elicit more complaints than praise. Scopelliti, the Republican turned Independent, put it like this: they want you to take public transportation, but how can you when it’s so inferior? (About two thirds of Staten Islanders drive to work.)
Interviewees’ other concerns included overdevelopment, the need for cleaner streets and road repair, rising property taxes, zombie houses (vacant homes in mortgage trouble), and speeding. The Ferebees, Democrats for Rose, expressed concern about people engaging in fare evasion on public transportation.
Cruz, the Democratic MTA train operator supporting Rose, was concerned about the city’s rising rents and said the mayor was not doing enough to help the homeless living underground in the subways. Republican Keller said de Blasio didn’t care about crime. When the reporter noted that crime rates are down, she acknowledged this but said the mayor doesn’t back his police force, and that cops are afraid to take action because of fear of repercussions.
While Keller, and Rose-supporter Catherine, might be in opposite ends of the political spectrum, they both described Staten Island as the “forgotten borough.” Eddie M., a Mid-Island Independent, was particularly emphatic: “The mayor doesn’t give a shit about Staten Island.” (The mayor has strongly denied that he has neglected the borough). Eddie M. sited the transportation difficulties as emblematic of Staten Island’s plight, but also pointed to something more cultural:
“This is the last borough of New York where there are actual New Yorkers in it”—meaning, he explained, not newcomers from places like Kansas, but “the cops and the firemen and the regular people.”
Divisions on values, national policy
They may agree on the traffic, but when it comes to questions about addressing race and class inequality, great differences in perspective exist among Staten Island residents.
Many supporters of Trump—and even some of those who hadn’t supported him originally—felt good about low unemployment and the soaring stock market, and credited the administration. “Trump is an outsider and he didn’t go to Washington to make money. He don’t need that, he got plenty…he knows what keeps businesses back, especially the mom-and-pop stores,” said Kennedy Democrat Anthony Delvecchio, But Weiss, the unionized city worker and Rose-supporter, said, “I’m making money, but that’s not the way to do it—on the backs of poor people.”
One’s evaluation of the economy will depend on which set of facts one reads. For instance, it’s true that the economy has grown at a high rate of 3.1 percent in the first half of 2018, but economists generally expect this growth to be a temporary spurt, according to Reuters. It’s also true unemployment is at historically low levels, but it’s been on a steady decline since the recession, and wage growth has been paltry.
Riggio, a Republican who supports Donovan, said she doesn’t think corporations need a handout and that she supports a raise in the minimum wage. When asked to comment on general Republican opposition to increasing the minimum wage, she posed that perhaps it’s not possible to lower taxes and raise wages at the same time, and that at the end of the day, people “still have to make money.”
Many right-leaning interviewees emphasized the value of hard work and expressed the notion that Democrats stood for handouts to the undeserving; they also condemned Dems for supporting “illegal” migration. Ralph Nova, an immigrant who is a Donovan and Trump supporter and said he worked for the Department of Homeland Security for 25 years, argued that, “there are people waiting on line…that’s why I support the wall.”
Support for the police was another concern. Mike Ahr, the retired police officer, said Obama divided the nation by always taking the side of “the bad guy, the guy who was shot.” While acknowledging his own bias, Ahr said that in his view, “the cop should always have the benefit of the doubt.” (Obama also faced criticism from members of the Black Lives Matter movement, it should be noted, for not being fully on their side, either.)
“It’s not about color…it’s over. People don’t think like that,” said Eddie M, while another undecided voter and Trump supporter, who would not give his name, said of Black and Latino Americans: “Let them sacrifice like the Oriental people do.”
One Rose-supporting, retired union worker, who asked not to be named, said that he didn’t think Donovan was “honest with people,” and criticized Donovan for his handling of the grand jury trial for the chokehold-death of Eric Garner by NYPD Officer Dan Pantaleo in 2014 during his time as Staten Island District Attorney, which did not result in an indictment of the officer. He added that he suspected racism was partially to blame for Staten Islanders’ dislike of Obama and de Blasio (whose wife and children are Black)—and he said he’d been trying to remind fellow Staten Islanders that getting a union pension is “basically socialism.”
Some of the Donovan supporters had no problem with abortion, but said they believed the liberal media was exaggerating the threat that Kavanagh posed to that right. Donovan-supporter Laura Keller said she didn’t believe Kavanagh was guilty of the sexual assault of which he was accused, while Nova, who doesn’t support abortion or gay marriage, said of Kavanagh: anyone who hasn’t sinned should cast the first stone. Some Rose supporters, on the other hand, emphasized their support of the right to choose and opposition to Kavanagh.
The candidates have stated positions on some of these issues. For instance, Rose has called for “comprehensive immigration reform” to “protect DACA recipients” and disproved of the confirmation of Kavanaugh, while Donovan backed Kavanaugh, has voted in favor of a bill restricting abortion, and has supported a pathway to citizenship but has also backed several parts of Trump’s immigration agenda.
Sometimes the divisions are simmering below the surface between neighbors, but sometimes there are mixed feelings within families. Take Brenda, a housewife married to a police officer. She said her son hated Trump because of his border wall proposal, but she thought stopping Obamacare might be good because she’d heard some people were taking unfair advantage of the benefits. As for whether to vote, and for whom, this November, she really wasn’t sure.
“We only see the surface,” she said with some humility. “We don’t see the deep side of politics.”
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