The tall Republican incumbent spoke with gravitas, calling himself a life-long Staten Islander from humble roots who has served the borough for 22 years in several offices—first at Borough Hall, then as District Attorney making Staten Island “the safest community in the safest big city in all of America,” and finally as Congressman since 2015, “representing you with honesty and integrity.”
Then the Democratic challenger, a head shorter and energetic, pitched himself: a veteran who served in Afghanistan and won a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, the “first post-9/11-combat veteran to run for office in New York City,” who helped lead a network of clinics in the city, campaigning on the promise of moving past an age of “hyper partisanship and vitriol” while refusing to cater to special interests.
The 11th District race between incumbent Dan Donovan and challenger Max Rose is the only competitive race for Congress in the city. Staten Island is also the only borough that voted for Donald Trump, but it’s also politically diverse, and Rose has run a rigorous campaign, outraising the incumbent by over $1 million.
Hosted by NY1 and the Staten Island Advance at the College of Staten Island, the debate centered mainly around two questions: who can represent the residents of Staten Island and South Brooklyn’s 11th District best, and what should one make of the Trump administration?
In some ways, the district seems almost symbolic of the nation as a whole, with a Democrat and Republican fighting to prove they are best suited to represent the interests of the “forgotten borough” with its mix of rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, car-driving and bus-riding voters. It’s a race that’s garnered national attention, a linchpin in Democrats’ fight to retake control of Congress, with undeniably high stakes.
As City Limits reported Tuesday in a deep-dive into the thinking of District 11 residents, many of the borough’s Trump voters appear satisfied by the administration’s track record so far and happy to put their faith in Donovan, but Rose is exciting both Hillary Clinton supporters and some frustrated with the Democratic establishment. Just where that leads will be decided on election day, Tuesday November 6.
Here are a few of the key campaign issues that came up during the debate.
Who’s funding it
Donovan accused Rose of receiving 96 percent of his campaign donations from outside the district and of being a newcomer: He said Rose grew up in Park Slope and had moved to the district two years ago “to run for Congress.”
Rose (whose campaign spokesperson says he moved to the Island in late 2014) argued, as he has previously, that he would have moved to Staten Island sooner if only he hadn’t been serving with the army in Afghanistan prior to his move. He said he’d raised hundreds of thousands from district residents. And Rose insisted his allegiance “begins and ends with the people of this district.”
A Rose campaign spokesperson said in an e-mail to City Limits on Wednesday that, to date, $190,566 out of their total $3.2 million contributions are from in-district residents, which is 6 percent of donations.
Rose also accused Donovan of pocketing money from corporations, then serving their interests, such as by voting to repeal energy standards, among a couple examples. Donovan argued that corporations such as Verizon donate to him because they have workers and customers in Staten Island: “I represent them well,” he said without qualms.
According to the most recent campaign filings, Donovan’s total contributions (excluding loans and transfers from other committees) amount to $2.1 million, with about $904,000 from political committees, including PACs. Rose’s amounted to $3.2 million, including $221,000 from political committees. According to NY1, Donovan’s PAC funds come from corporations like AT&T, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Pfizer (a biopharmaceutical company), while Rose, who says he rejects all corporate PAC and federal lobbyist donations, has taken contributions from groups like Planned Parenthood, VoteVets.og, End Citizens United, and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Donovan has tread a thin tight rope on Trump, facing bashing from both sides— from his former Republican primary challenger Michael Grimm, who accused Donovan of not being supportive of Trump’s agenda, and from Rose for flip-flopping and for becoming a Trump-“sycophant” in order to seek Trump’s endorsement. 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. On Tuesday, he appeared mostly aligned with Trump, but with some nuance.
“The president has done an amazing job,” he said, adding later, “Record low unemployment, record high stock market, the economy is booming, and it just started in the last 17 months when this man took office.”
He explained that Trump’s tax bill did benefit most of the country, but that he’d voted against it because it did raise taxes in New York (and also after negotiating to make it less of a bitter pill for New Yorkers). He declared it was important for the nation to defend human rights, but said it was too early to conclude whether Saudi Arabia deserved to face sanctions for the alleged murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Furthermore, the investigation of Trump had been going on too long and had yielded no evidence of wrongdoing by the administration, Donovan said. He also praised Trump for successfully securing the freedom of hostages in North Korea and Turkey, and assisting with the release of arrested basketball players in China—without spending millions of dollars like, he alleged, Barack Obama had (a reference to Republicans’ accusation that the Obama administration gave $1.7 billion to Iran as a ransom to free American hostages; the Obama administration has disputed the idea that it was ransom because it was satisfying an outstanding claim by Iran for military equipment that was not delivered).
Rose staked out a very different position, but was also careful not to alienate potential voters who had cast a ballot for Trump. The tax bill, he said, just benefited the wealthy. Due to the added debt, he said, “We won’t have the money for the next depression, the next recession, the next war” which meant a “national security crisis created by this man’s congress.” He suggested Trump was looking the other way on Saudi Arabia and said he did believe the United States should defend human rights but “we can’t do so in a fool-hearty manner,” as exemplified by the US’s involvement in the Iraq War.
But Rose was not above acknowledging Trump’s victory in securing the release of hostages, and he said it was too soon to comment on whether he’d support impeachment, with Mueller’s investigation still underway. He also said he would be willing to work with Trump on things the president campaigned on, like an infrastructure plan and draining the swamp. “I don’t intend to go to Washington D.C. with a pitchfork in my hand …Two wrongs do not make a right and that’s not the kind of congressman I’m going to be,” Rose said.
The two candidates also discussed climate change, with Rose saying it was a mistake to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also called for cap and trade, as well as a U.S. infrastructure plan that invests in a smart grid, resiliency, green energy technology, and real battery technology. Donovan defended the president’s decision to exit the Paris Agreement, but also acknowledged that climate change is man made. He said Congress has approved funding in the defense budget to ensure the military takes into account sea level rise, such as when they are constructing new bases, and emphasized the importance of training people for new industries while fossil fuels are phased out. Rose’s response: “a year ago, you said this wasn’t a man-made problem.” (Donovan had, in fact, said it was debatable in November 2017.)
The opioid epidemic
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.
As he has previously, Rose accused Donovan of falling asleep on the wheel in his former job as district attorney. “He stood on the sidelines while this crisis overtook this community,” Rose said at the debate.
Donovan dismissed notions that he hadn’t rigorously fought drug crimes, saying that a decision to disband the narcotics unit, criticized by Rose, was more an administrative move and came after he had vastly increased the number of lawyers—from three to 50, he said—working on narcotics cases. Emphasizing that his father was an alcoholic and that the drug problem was of personal significance to him, he stressed his efforts to create a pilot program to equip police officers with the life-saving counterdrug Naloxone, his facilitation of a successful drug treatment court, and the numerous bills and funding package to address the crisis that he has worked to secure as a Congressman.
The Rose campaign has in the past called out Donovan for accepting almost $10,000 in donations from pharmaceutical executives; in September Donovan’s campaign said they were unaware of the donations but that they would be immediately donated to drug treatment programs. Noting this, NY1’s Courtney Gross asked if Donovan would support prosecution to hold such companies legally liable for starting the opioid epidemic, a measure that Rose has repeatedly called for (and Trump has said he would, too, though his Justice Department has yet to launch a federal suit).
“They were. They were—people went to prison for lying about the addiction aspects of OxyContin.” Donovan replied. (In fact, in 2007 three Purdue Pharma executives pleaded guilty to “misbranding”, paid fines and performed community service.) He added that he would support further prosecution measures when warranted: “Certainly, if they’re guilty of committing a federal crime, they certainly should be.”
Asked how each candidate would ensure constituents affected by the crisis could afford treatment, Rose called for doubling the number of clinics and prescribers who can provide medically assisted treatment, and for universal health care (his platform calls for the creation of a public option and the extension of Medicare to those as young as 55-year-olds), while Donovan also noted a shortage of beds and said insurance companies need to cover the cost of care. Rose then criticized Donovan for voting for the repeal of Obamacare. (Donovan did when Obama was president, but voted against the repeal recommended by Trump last year.)
Later, asked whether the candidates supported the legalization of recreational marijuana, Donovan said he supported medical uses of marijuana but saw it as a gateway to harder drugs and does not support recreational use, while Rose offered support for extended medical uses and the creation of a regulated, taxable, industry for recreational use.
Another difference that didn’t come up: while both support law enforcement measures to crack down on drug sales, Donovan has supported lowering the thresholds for mandatory minimum sentences, while Rose believes in ending mandatory minimum sentencing.
Immigration and law enforcement
Representing a borough with almost 11 percent of the NYPD force—and less than one percent of the city’s total population—Rose and Donovan both sought to portray themselves as believers in a mix of law-and-order and compassion, but differences persist.
Rose is against the abolition of Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) but supports reform, and does support sanctuary cities. He argued that the interference of ICE impacts residents’ willingness to report crimes. “If we follow this man’s lead, then all of our public safety will be hurt.”
As for family separation at the border, “We can be, and we should be, a nation of security, and one that enforces our laws, but also one that affirms our values—and our values are not in line with ripping scared children away from their equally scared parents,” contended Rose.
Donovan said he supports immigration law reform but also securing the borders, and does not support sanctuary cities. Denying that he has flip-flopped on the issue, Donovan explained that he had originally opposed Trump’s efforts to block funds for law enforcement in sanctuary cities, saying it would hurt anti-terrorism efforts, but he eventually proposed a bill that would punish sanctuary cities by depriving them of funds used to harbor undocumented immigrants (State Criminal Alien Assistance Program grant dollars , which cover the salaries of correction officers for costs associated with the incarceration of undocumented immigrants). Donovan also defended Trump’s practice of separating family members from their children, saying the law forbid keeping children in detention centers, so they and their families either had to be kept in the United States, or the children placed in non-detention facilities or transferred to U.S. relatives.
Donovan also accused his opponent of not taking public safety seriously, pointing to Rose’s work for late Brooklyn district attorney Kenneth Thompson on a program (called Begin Again) that helps clear peoples’ records of low-level offenses.
It was the second time this week the two candidates have discussed the rights of the formerly incarcerated: When Rose met with Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul on Monday for a press conference that derided Donovan’s approach to the opioid epidemic, Donovan attacked Rose for aligning with the administration, noting that in April, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order to restore the voting rights of the 35,000 people with felonies on parole and any new potential parolees, including, Donovan said, “cop killer” Herman Bell. (Bell, a member of the Black Liberation Army, killed two officers in 1971, and was released on parole shortly after the executive order—though Cuomo said that if it were up to him, he wouldn’t have released Bell.)
Rose had responded that, “If you killed a cop, then I don’t think you should be voting … But we certainly have to deal with something in this country, where if people are let out of prison then they deserve to be full citizens again.”
One thing that did not come up at the debate was the chokehold-death of Eric Garner by NYPD Officer Dan Pantaleo in 2014 during Donovan’s time as Staten Island District Attorney, which did not result in an indictment of the officer, and which remains the subject of a federal investigation. Donovan has been criticized for his handling of the special grand jury trial; there were reports that Donovan’s office “coached witnesses to soften their characterizations of Pantaleo’s actions,” among other questions about his strategy. Donovan has defended his investigation as thorough and fair, and asked during the Republican primary whether he believed Pantaleo should be returned to full duty, Donovan said yes.
In June, asked on Twitter what she thought of Rose and whether he’d reached out to her, Garner’s mother tweeted that she’d never heard from him. The Rose campaign did not respond to a request for comment on his position on Officer Pantaleo’s non-indictment.
Last but not least, the two candidates emphasized their dedication to addressing the need for better transportation options on Staten Island. Donovan emphasized steps he’s taken to try to secure funding for a bus rapid transit and light rail system (something Rose has included in his transportation platform), while Rose spoke of the need for a fast ferry on the South Shore (which Donovan has also previously said he supports) and better service for the R. While the candidates agree on Staten Island’s needs, they disagree on funding sources and Donovan’s track record.
Donovan said he did not support congestion pricing or raising taxes to support mass transit, while Rose said he would support congestion pricing if it came with a reduction in the Verrazano bridge toll, as well as raising taxes on the ultra-rich.
“He’s lied about his record in terms of what he’s done when it come to transportation,” Rose pressed, an argument Donovan swiftly rejected: “I don’t know about what he would know about my record,” he said.