The Straw That Stirs the Drink

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Rep. Max Rose speaking with Hamodia. (Hamodia)

“The Democratic Party is incapable of avoiding irrelevant third rails that alienate people.”

We haven’t even sat down yet for our chat, but already the congressman is criticizing the Democratic Party.

We’ve just walked into the outdoor seating area of the congressman’s favorite Manhattan restaurant, and at 9:00 this warm summer morning, he orders … a matzah ball soup. The waitresses know their best customer’s order before he even says anything. I order a Coke, and when the server asks if I want a straw, I wink at the congressman and say, “Make sure it’s a paper straw.” And that’s when, before he even has pulled a chair up to the table, he lets loose on the Democratic Party.

The congressman, by the way, is a Democrat.

***

Rep. Max Rose represents New York’s 11th Congressional District, covering all of Staten Island, and portions of South Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge and Sheepshead Bay.

A lifelong New Yorker, Rose grew up in Park Slope, before eventually attending Wesleyan University in Connecticut, followed by the London School of Economics.

Rose got his first political experience at the age of 19, as an intern for then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

In 2010, he enlisted in the Army, serving as an officer in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013, earning a Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Badge, as well as a Purple Heart for injuries he sustained when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. He is continuing his service in the National Guard.

After leaving the Army, Rose served as director of public engagement and special assistant to late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. He then worked as chief of staff for Brightpoint Health, a non-profit health-care organization.

While people frequently thank him for his military service, Rose says, “The Army gave me and continues to give me so much more than I gave it.” In the armed forces, one learns things — such as camping, using a compass, and training in tools and weapons — that one typically does not learn growing up in a big city, he says. “And the military really exposed me to so much of the country and to so many different people. Even before I went overseas — just being based in Georgia and Texas. And learning about different American cultures.”

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Rose participates in a press conference at a Bensonhurst train station calling for improved transportation and infrastructure spending. (Office of Max Rose)

For this fourth-generation New Yorker, who had his bar mitzvah at a Reform temple in Prospect Heights, military service also gave him a fresh perspective on his identity.

“I spent the vast majority of my life previous to enlisting in really three places: New York City, Connecticut and London. When you spend your life in those three places, you would probably guesstimate there’s maybe 900 million Jews in the world,” he says with a laugh. “The notion of being Jewish, when you experience life in those three places, is nothing special, nothing different. I find it fascinating to start to look at times that I’ve lived, through a historical lens. I was born in 1986. That period of the ’80s and the ’90s, when you and I both kind of came into our consciousness, and even the early 21st century, was a period where anti-Semitism, racism, I think, were actually declining in these places with high concentrations of Jews. To the point that being Jewish meant something different.

“You forget how few Jews there are. You forget the importance. And it wasn’t until I enlisted in the military that I started meeting people who, I was the first Jew they’d ever met. You deploy to Afghanistan and this is not something I talk about very frequently, but you know, you make the decision not to put ‘Jewish’ on your dog tags for obvious fears [of being captured, or coming into conflict with America’s own Afghan allies]. You realize that these are and have always been very tenuous times for the Jewish people and we have to remain vigilant. We have to keep our solidarity. Keep our passions. Keep our pride. And that’s something I’m very serious about.”

The Person, Not the Party

The 11th District has generally been in Republican hands for decades. But Max Rose won a close election over incumbent Republican Dan Donovan in 2018, as part of a mini-blue wave that put the House of Representatives back in Democratic hands.

The biggest splash among the new crop of House Democrats was made by a group of young female progressives. Though garnering fewer headlines nationally, Rose is the youngest man in Congress — he’ll be 33 this November, and, in true millennial style, does not wear a tie in his official Congressional photo — and is of a somewhat different political bent.

The man who represents New York’s most conservative district — though, as Rose says, “that’s a low bar” — and who will likely face a tough general election every time he runs — calls himself an “ardent capitalist,” and is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition and the New Democrat Coalition, groups of Democrats who consider themselves moderate, particularly on economic matters. And he’s not afraid to criticize ideas emanating from leftist elements of his own party — like mandating paper straws.

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Rose joins Coast Guard members for tour of Fort Wadsworth, New York Harbor. (Office of Max Rose)

So how did a Democrat win this district?

“I do not look at Staten Island and South Brooklyn as a particularly conservative or ideological place,” says the congressman. “They vote for the person, not the party. They’re more than comfortable, as demonstrated time and time again, with voting across party lines: McCain in ’08, Obama in ’12, Trump in ’16 — the only district in the country to vote like that.

“Now, what I will tell you, though, is that they’re deeply frustrated, and rightfully so. The Democratic Party has been overtaken by this notion, this sentiment of ‘What’s the matter with Kansas?’ And it’s deeply patronizing, deeply elitist and totally misguided. The truth is that government has failed people. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are running on things and talking about things, and they’re not doing them. Whether it’s pro-union, pro-environment, pro-infrastructure, pro-lowering health-care costs, pro-ending our forever wars — the list goes on and on and on, and we’re not seeing progress.

“They, certainly, though, as the district with the highest rate of union membership of any district in America, a district filled with incredible public servants, a district in the heart of the largest city in America — they’re not saying get government out of my back pocket, but they are saying, give me an effective government. Give me one that can be bold but also realistic, not one that’s unnecessarily dogmatic. That’s what we ran on, but more importantly, that’s what we’re going to actually try to do. What we have been trying to do.”

Tired of 2020

Another thing Max Rose is trying to do is keep the focus on the legislative agenda, rather than on the political game. He has repeatedly refused to answer questions about the upcoming presidential election.

But I toss a line into the water.

“You call yourself an ardent capitalist,” I ask. “One question I have: No matter who comes out of the Democratic primary, even if it is an ardent socialist like Bernie Sanders, would you support him over Donald Trump?”

No bite.

“I’m not going to entertain hypotheticals like that,” says Rose. “I don’t think Bernie Sanders stands a chance of winning the Democratic nomination.”

“So you’re not saying for certain,” I ask, “that you would support Bernie if he comes out of the Democratic primary?”

“Oh, no, I would never commit to for certain supporting him — quite frankly, I’m not entertaining anything about the 2020 election,” says Rose. “Not a thing.

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Following a tour of the International Mail Facility at JFK Airport, Rose criticized what he described as “bureaucratic turf wars and red tape that have prevented a critical lab from being installed” to better detect drugs being smuggled into the United States from China. (Office of Max Rose)

“We do have a problem in this country — that here you and I are sitting on a beautiful day in the off-year of an election, September 2019, fourteen months prior to an election. And our discourse has been dominated by talk about the presidential campaigns since basically March. So, what did I get as a new member of Congress? Two months? Six weeks? A month? To actually do my job before being inundated with talk about this? And it’s not cute anymore.

“Oh, look, I love to talk parlor politics, I love this game, don’t get me wrong. I really do. But it’s producing a deleterious effect on the future of this country that I do think we have to start to acknowledge. And so, for that reason, as I’ve said very publicly, I am on strike till 2020. No talk about any presidential politics.”

Presidential elections are not the only political discussion the new legislator is tired of. Though he has publicly called out progressive members of his party, he is unhappy with how this subject of Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib has dominated the political discourse during the 116th Congress.

“First of all,” says Rose, “let’s look at what Congress is as an institution: 535 independent contractors — all incredible egomaniacs in their own right.

“But these individuals you just outlined are only three people with very little legislative power behind them, and who certainly have said things that I ardently disagree with, and I’ve been public about that — very public. From calling the Green New Deal a socialist lie to being the first one in the country to criticize Ilhan Omar when she said [regarding U.S. support for Israel] ‘it’s all about the Benjamins.’ To being the first one in the country, [among] Democrats at least, to criticize her 9/11 comments.

“Now, with that being said, though, I will not let someone else dominate my agenda. I will not let someone else dominate my focus. I have limited opportunity to speak. There are limited days in the year, limited hours in the day, limited minutes in the hour. And I will not spend the majority of my time — no matter what the Republican Party wants — on them. Because that does not lower health-care costs, that does not help infrastructure, that does not do a thing — besides,” he says with a wink, “potentially give you a [provocative] headline.”

“You talk about yourself being a moderate Blue Dog,” I say, “but is there room for that today in the Democratic Party? Ten or 20 years from now, what do you see the face of the party looking like? Like you? Like [Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and Tlaib]? Mixed?”

“Here’s what I can see as the face of the party, right now,” says the freshman congressman. “Face of the party right now is the people who flipped seats in 2018. And they run across the country, from Colin Allred in Texas to Abigail Spanberger in Virginia to Elissa Slotkin in Michigan to Laura Underwood in Illinois, to Jared Golden in Maine, to Debbie Mucarsel-Powell down in Florida, to everyone from Katie Porter and Harley Rouda out in California, to Xochitl Torres Smalls in New Mexico.

“What I just listed for you were people that run the gamut, culturally speaking, demographically speaking, but all of whom beat Republicans and all of whom talked about — in different parts of the country — incredibly sensible and yet bold ways in which we can tackle problems. To address problems requires proactivity. We [all] agree with the problems: Health-care costs are too high. Infrastructure’s crumbling. Commutes are too long. Too many people dying from the opioid epidemic. Forever wars, adjusting to a 21st-century national-security environment. Trying to figure out how to compete in the 21st century without being overly protectionist and levying awful tariffs that really, really hurt the people who read your work. How do we train people for jobs that we can’t predict what they are but we know that they’re going to require intellect and ingenuity and aptitude.

“All that is going to require us doing something more than just giving tax cuts to extraordinarily wealthy people and then talking about cultural third rails and trying to scare people.”

“Cultural third rails?” I ask. “Like what?”

“Like G-d knows what,” he says. “Like straws. All I’m trying to say is that I am sick and tired of us not doing something.”

Straws Will Not Fix It

Rose definitely plans on “doing something.”

While he disagrees with the Green New Deal and with my having to drink from a soggy paper straw (fortunately, this restaurant has plastic!) he has strong feelings on the environment, and on climate change, which he calls “a cataclysmic national security crisis — one that straws will not fix.”

So what does he believe will fix it?

“I could list you 30 things, but why don’t I just list you three for the sake of brevity and salience.

“The first is tech innovation. We could right now reduce United States emissions to zero and we would barely change the course of global climate change if we do not fix the fact that developing nations, principally those in East Asia, Central Asia, and Africa, are right now economically incentivized to go to coal as they develop. We won’t fix a thing. America should be leading the way with that technological development. So that’s one.

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Rose (L), who is chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, meeting with NYPD counterterrorism officials. (Office of Max Rose)

“Two is that we certainly should have some type of global accord. A Paris agreement on steroids would be ideal.

“And then, lastly, certainly America should take the lead on efforts to reduce carbon emissions via efficiencies and technological advancement under what I would argue should be a cap-and-trade model.

“I could drink out of gold straws, [but that] doesn’t change a thing — but it does alienate people and it sets us back.”

Label Me Whatever You Want

Though he may disagree with some Democrats on some issues, Rose’s legislative agenda is by no means a Republican playbook. Look at the “Issues” section of his website, and much of it sounds like fairly typical Democratic ideas.

“You oppose the progressive wing,” I ask. “But you support a public option in health care, lowering the Medicare age to 55, significant government action with the environment, completely socially liberal policy, supporting union laws — to be honest, issue by issue, I don’t see much of a difference [between you and them], with the possible exception of [support for] Israel.”

Rose replies specifically to my health-care comments. This is a particularly important issue to the man who was chief of staff of a health-care non-profit, and we spend a considerable portion of our discussion on this deeply problematic, contentious, and seemingly intractable matter.

He opposes those in his party who push for abolishing private insurance, but supports a “public option” in health care, to promote “further competition.”

He believes in the necessity of government action because, he says, “health care is not in itself an unadulterated, normal free market, for a few reasons: It’s traditionally incredibly inelastic in the sense that the consumer has demonstrated time and again that they’ll pay whatever it takes because their life is on the line; with prices there’s often very, very little transparency; and at times the consumer is actually incapacitated, so they don’t have an opportunity to make a real choice.

“That is why … we can have a choice in the health-insurance market while at the same time acknowledging the [need for] a public sector role in controlling costs.

“So, look, you can label me whatever you want, but the truth of the matter is that what I am talking about is bringing the Democratic Party back to what the Democratic Party should be: A tried-and-true political organization that has its heart and passion and mindset aligned with hard-working Americans who are following the rules every day and keeping their head down. And I think that my health-care policies are totally aligned with them.”

Rose says lowering the Medicare age — “incrementally” and “in a very responsible manner” — is important because “as we see the economy changing and adapting, that is a principal population that has been really hard hit. If I’m 58 years old and lose my factory job or whatever, it might be very, very difficult to get re-employed.

“Secondly, lowering the Medicare age to 55 or so will have a profound effect on the private health-insurance market because you will take out a population that has much higher health-care costs, lowering per capita private-health-insurance costs.”

Medicare has tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities; there was recently talk of raising the eligibility age. How can we possibly lower the age, I ask, without massive increases in taxes, and/or further deficits?

Rose says revenue can be raised with a small hike in the corporate income tax, and by closing what he calls “egregious, egregious tax loopholes,” like “the carried interest loophole.”

“There are so many examples in which the largest corporations and the wealthiest amongst us are not following the same rules that you and I are,” says Rose. “And I’m an ardent capitalist. You’ve heard what I’ve had to say about a myriad of different socialist policies that are promulgated by certain members of my own party. And I’ve been very vocal in my opposition to them.”

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Rose at the Kosel during a Congressional trip to Israel this summer. (Office of Max Rose)

Rose believes a big driver of exorbitant costs is unnecessarily high drug prices.

“There are a few issues when it comes to pharmaceutical drugs. The first is the price of generics. That you have pharmaceutical companies doing crazy things. Buying up other companies who are making generics. Adding patents. Slight little changes that only allow them to continue to jack up prices. We see this in insulin, in a pretty extraordinary fashion.

“And then, part of the issue as well is that we’re not negotiating drug prices. We have to be able to negotiate drug prices via Medicare in the same way that we do with the VA.”

Rose also says that a “significant” problem with the health-care system “is that the incentives are totally off.”

“The incentives of this diner are totally aligned with the needs of the consumer,” he says. “I want matzah ball soup, they give me delicious matzah ball soup and I pay them for it. And there’s price competition.

“In a health-care institution, that’s not the way it works. As much as people want to talk about a value-based health care, it’s still totally based around an archaic fee-for-service system. That does not incentivize health outcomes, but rather incentivizes filling hospital beds and continuing to provide for services.”

And how would Rose go about changing this?

“There are a few things,” he says. “One is global hospital budgets that provides for per-person capitation. So that we can start to invest much, much, much more in primary care. We can also invest in things like — I’ll give you an example: asthma. Sometimes the most cost-effective thing we can do for someone with asthma is put an air conditioner in their home.”

Rose insists he is not trying to socialize medicine. “But I am talking about building out an ecosystem in which true competition can exist that benefits the consumer. That’s what I’m talking about. Setting the rules of the road that actually make cogent sense. And, if we see that in a health-care institution where they are actually occupying every node along the continuum of care, not just sending you out to a different person … without any transference of records and they just do everything over and over and over again.

“But where they’re investing from primary care all the way down into long-term care and home care. And trying to say, ‘I’m going to try to keep you out of the hospital, not put you in it.’ Whereas now the incentives are totally misaligned. And I do believe that we will see an incredible effect on our long-term health-care costs as a result of that.

“Now, there are a myriad of other things that we could be doing. But just those … I think would set us on the right path.”

Keep on Trying

Rose recently returned from a congressional trip to Israel. While Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s attempts to visit the West Bank made more national headlines — again, the young progressives threatening to overshadow the mainstream — 41 Democrats and 31 Republicans in the House visited Israel in August.

This was Rose’s second visit to the country — his first was 10 years ago — and he calls it a “wonderful trip” that “gave us the opportunity to really do a deep dive, to spend a lot of time with my colleagues on a bipartisan basis.”

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Rose with IDF soliders (Office of Max Rose)

The Members of Congress, says Rose, were confronted with “the shocking realization of the consequences of geography, for one. That Syria is right there. Lebanon right there. Gaza right there. The West Bank right there. I’m talking about it as I think it was viewed through the eyes of my colleagues, which was very important, because I went there as a pro-Israel Democrat, too. I’m very confident in my views.

“You’re also reminded of the extraordinary relevance of recent history. You know, let’s for a moment forget about ’48, ’56, ’67, ’73, ’82. Let’s just look at the 21st century and the close of the 20th century and let’s just look at the fact that multiple intifadas were coming from the West Bank. Let’s just look at a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza only to be met with the election of Hamas and missiles into Israel.

“And then let’s think about how we, as a country, would have reacted if we were experiencing that from Jersey City or Yonkers. We would have certainly used force to preserve our own public safety and national security. That is the right of every nation.

“We’re also reminded of the vital importance of having a Jewish democratic state. So, as we continue our pursuit of peace, prosperity, which I think we all collectively agree that we want to see, it’s important not to be historically naïve.”

The group’s meetings “ran the gamut,” says Rose, “everything from going to the West Bank and meeting with Palestinian entrepreneurs to sitting down with Mahmoud Abbas to Prime Minister Netanyahu, to Benny Gantz …”

Rose “did not leave totally confident that [Abbas] could be a trusted actor,” and “was disheartened by his unwillingness to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state.” However, “I don’t think that that is justification to stop trying. But I will never support efforts centered around trying for peace to justify sacrificing Israel’s security. And I don’t think that we have to trade those things.”

And “there’s absolutely no doubt” that the Palestinian leadership has failed its people, says Rose.

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Rose speaking at a breakfast of the Association for a Better New York. (Office of Max Rose)

“Their leadership has diverted vital humanitarian aid. Their leadership has in the past turned down peace deals, as Yasser Arafat did at the turn of the century. And then it happened again in 2007. There’s no doubt they’ve been failed, but that is not a justification to close the door. It’s not. But they’ve been failed.”

The Trump administration has said it will roll out its long-awaited peace plan after the Israeli elections. The president himself has referred to the potential for Israeli-Palestinian peace as the “deal of the century.”

“I retain hope and optimism that in our lifetimes we can figure something out,” says Rose. “And that’s really where I think it should be left, that we have to keep on trying without sacrificing Israel’s security. So, they have to put out the plan. And then we have to continue trying.

“I’m not going to play politics with the issue. I’m disappointed that they could have been maybe more transparent. But I just really want us to keep on trying.”

***

The breakfast bowl of matzah ball soup is finished. So is the glass of Coke with the plastic straw.

The Congressional recess officially ends today. Rose has already made an appearance early this morning on his favorite talk show, and has several more items to attend to before he heads back to Washington.

The pundits are busy talking about the 2020 presidential elections, and about which Democratic candidates around the country will be “primaried” by leftist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America.

But the youngest man in Congress has no use for the chatter. He’ll worry about 2019 in 2019, and leave 2020 for 2020. The legislative session beckons.

He is heading to Washington. “To actually do my job.”

rborchardt@hamodia.com