Where the ‘Democratic Left’ Goes to Die: Staten Island NYC and the Forgotten Primaries   

The “Forgotten Borough” Staten Island, New York is not like the rest of the city notes Professor of Political Science Richard Flanagan at College of Staten Island CUNY. On November 6, 2018 however, the night that Max Rose (D) defeated Dan Donovan (R) to represent New York’s 11th congressional district in the US House of Representatives, Roxanne Mustafa, co-founder of Staten Island Women Who March (SIWWM) cried tears of joy prompting the owner of Errigo’s to ask “congratulations, is he your son?” She replied “no” but the conversation that followed involved voting, civic duty, the limitations of electoral politics, and the difficulty of turning a red district blue with all of the emotions that might entail.

Meanwhile Democracy Now! featured political activist and organizer Linda Sansour, journalist Jeremy Scahill, and commentator Ryan Grim. Although Staten Island remains a Republican stronghold, and Rose was only the second Democrat to win the seat since 1981, Barack Obama received 48% of Staten Island’s vote in 2008 and won the island outright in 2012. As it turned out Rose won in stunning fashion, and outperformed the incumbent in both Brooklyn and Staten Island respectively.

Since New York’s 11th is Sarsour’s district Scahill asked her to tell the audience about Dan Donovan, the incumbent that Max Rose had just defeated. She responded with “Dan Donovan was the district attorney at one point who could not indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo who choked Eric Garner on video for the whole country to watch, for the whole world to watch. And he actually immediately after that won a seat in Congress. He beat a Democrat (Vincent Gentile in a special election) to get into Congress. He was almost rewarded for the non-indictment of officer Pantaleo.”

Sarsour continued with, “And today he was beat. He was beat by a very young man, a young Democrat, Max Rose, and in a district that has changing demographics. It’s longtime been like the “Mississippi of the North.” But new immigrants, new Americans, young progressives, people of color, black people on the North Shore, a large Latino community has come together and Dan Donovan is out of a job. And we were the only district in New York City that gave a Republican to Congress. And now New York City has become fully a Democratic delegation.”

Ryan Grim added that although Max Rose “refused corporate cash he’s not a super progressive” and Sarsour took issue and objected with “No, that’s true.” Grim replied with “But he did say ‘I’m not taking any corporate money’” to which Sarsour agreed “yes.” Grim remarked that Rose looked “to be one of those people who said he’s going to stick by [that promise].” Many critics all along have believed that Rose’s rhetoric concerning “ripping up corporate checks” was simply code for refusing corporate cash while funneling money through the DCCC which does in fact take corporate cash. But according to Open Secrets, Rose has not only taken from the DCCC who takes from corporate donors, but from corporations outright.

In retrospect it’s not surprising that liberal Michael DeVito was a distant second place to Max Rose in the Democratic Primary given that Rose’s name surfaced at Alameda, San Francisco, and Oakland dinner parties with regularity in the summer of 2018. Leading up to the November midterm, Rose’s name was mentioned in the same sentence as Robert Goodlatte’s son and various other angel investors.

The Democracy Now! exchange was interesting but needs to be unpacked a bit more. For starters, Sarsour’s commentary regarding the criticism of Donovan over the mishandling of the police killing of Eric Garner while Donovan was District Attorney is true, except the national media’s coverage of this is disproportionate to the political activity in the North Shore of Staten Island related to the murder. Furthermore, Rose won“Trump country” but “addressing non-partisan issues.” Outside of a few radical activists and local progressives much of the Staten Island North Shore’s political culture is parochial, provincial, and soft “left,” and largely comprised of entrenched elected officials and liberals that more or less aided in Garner’s death, and promoted broken windows, over-policing, land speculation and over-development, while disassociating machine electoral politics and short term winning from long term, on the ground activism.

Many of the residents of Staten Island’s North Shore that are engaged with the Garner tragedy, even the unwitting liberal collaborators, are informed at all intersecting levels of the locale but do not engage or vote for the most part, and when they do, they support insurgent candidates or progressive third parties. Rent burdened and working class people in the North Shore also do not vote nearly as regularly as the middle class white, black and latinx residents that Sarsour mentioned the night Rose won.

Additionally, the “changing demographic” has been steadily taking place in the North Shore since the 1960s, so it has not been “longtime the Mississippi of the North.” The historic and current city councilwoman has impressively earned three consecutive terms, debunking this notion.

Secondly, it is believed by many that an inadvertent Sanders like economics-first canvassing strategy motivated “conservative” voters to turn significant portions of Mid-Island, Staten Island less red. It’s not only that Rose won because he defamed de Blasio, pharmaceutical companies, touted his military career, and promoted appeals to patriotism and first responders with his literature. Nor did he win simply by showing he had the chops to manage their capital better than a stale incumbent.

Sarsour might disagree with this analysis of the Rose victory but few happened to notice a robust Eric Garner discussion leading up to the election. Let’s say that Democratic politicians did discuss Garner at length, would it necessarily alienate moderate to conservative mid-islanders on Staten Island? It’s doubtful. Discussing “divisive” issues such as racial injustice isn’t a bad strategy per se, but perhaps it’s just that voters want to hear about a fair economy directly that might make racial injustice, or any form of injustice, less common.

Rose might have won even more votes for that matter in the South Shore, Staten Island if he used a strict class-based message instead of assuming the way forward there was to promote law and order, military credentials, nationalism, and drain the swamp language. Nevertheless, Rose disrupted the South Shore and received over 12,000 votes.

When Scahill asked Sarsour to comment on the Rose victory she could have simply stated that Rose won because he spent a great deal of money, had an excellent ground game, and capitalized on Brooklyn’s Andrew Gounardes  race, a high turnout, and a blue wave (or “splash” according to pollster Steve Greenberg) throughout the United States. The money and ground game was able to calibrate and target certain apolitical Kennedy liberals that now identify as “conservatives” on the mid-island that may or may not live off of their credits cards, are trapped in debt, and have sick loved ones as wages decline.

One of several primary candidates that Max Rose faced was the current SIPAN director (Staten Island Progressive Action Network and branch of NYPAN) Paul Sperling, a millennial and perhaps the lone progressive in the race, who ran to gain experience in setting up a progressive campaign and getting ballot access. To many progressives it will come to no surprise that Max Rose faces the potential to be primaried if for no other reason to continue to build the left wing of the Democratic Party that started in 2008.

Max Rose did receive a considerable amount of progressive left votes in his general election bid that he did not receive in the primary. Over a one-third of Staten Island and South Brooklynite Democrats and progressives did not select Rose in his primary but a large portion that saw the need to defeat Republicans voted for him adding to the “surge” and many are following him closely.

Since his swearing in however he has been a vocal opponent of Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, and has supported a “motion to commit” which allows the GOP to spend as much as it would like on a border wall. While campaigning on leftist turf, Rose also pledged to join the Progressive Caucus but instead has joined the Blue Dog Coalition. Rose also voiced support for the Iran nuclear deal framework before Peace Action Staten Island when that doesn’t seem to be the case now. Rose also with seemingly little to gain, spoke out against Ilhan Omar, by far one the most competent, brave, and progressive politicians currently serving in the United States.

In light of all of this Sperling indicated that “history might be repeating itself in Staten Island.” He was referring to Michael McMahon, the current Democratic Staten Island District Attorney and then congressman “who also rode in on a blue wave in a blue year, and thought he could build up conservative support without alienating the progressive base.” Sperling argues that when McMahon was in Congress and voted against the Affordable Care Act he misread how many people regardless of political party valued it, even with its mild reforms.

Meanwhile, as Congressman Rose governs from the center, the centrist Michael McMahon is in the driver’s seat to secure his District Attorney post. McMahon is currently running unopposed in the upcoming primary and has no GOP challenger. Cakewalking into any office without so much any challenge in New York City from the progressive wing, given the rise of DSA, the recent IDC defeats, and federal and state level victors such as the promising Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar is truly stunning indeed.

Tiffany Cabán is presently setting the model for what is possible with progressives and DA office holding in New York City, but no such groundswell exists in the North Shore, Staten Island (a place that claims to be progressive) and neither did the groundswell exist for Max Rose in the North Shore at least, as Sarsour might think. As former Staten Island borough presidential candidate Tom Shcherbenko lamented at a forum this past October much to the chagrin of Debi Rose’s astute campaign manager David Jones “why it can’t happen here on the North Shore? [Getting progressives elected] I don’t know!” Shcherbenko however, is not alone in asking this question or voicing the sentiment.

Neil Schuldiner, the Treasurer of the Staten Island NAACP and a member of SIARAPB (Staten Island Against Racism and Police Brutality) in a careful study of the New York Law Journal including previous congressional records, documented: McMahon’s opposition to independent special prosecutors in cases that involved police shootings, opposition to the legalization of marijuana, and opposition to affirmative action in hiring. Schuldiner urged Reverend Dr. Carolina to consider McMahon’s civil rights record in a fall 2018 SI NAACP branch meeting. It was further noted how McMahon opposed clearing low level warrants, the taxing of Wall Street bonuses, the capping of executive pay at companies receiving bailout money from taxpayers, in addition to the vote against Obamacare.

Progressive candidate for Public Advocate Nomiki Konst has cited the most recent anti-progressive measures associated within the DA office, drawing outrage from the more machine and establishment elements of Staten Island Democrats. In a recent op-ed by the District Attorney, he offered a well written and heart-felt analysis but it could also be seen as a cynical attempt to address a constituency that breaks down crime as simply a good vs. evil dichotomy or perceives to anyway.

Despite some of the promise of newcomers like Max Rose and the popularity of incumbents that have worked hard over the years in forging emotional connections with centrists and party loyalists like McMahon skillfully has, names have surfaced as eventual primary insurgents including Linda Sarsour, Richard-Olivier Marius, Patricia Okoumou, as well as others with blue-collar and progressive roots but no elected office experience.

Shcherbenko apparently contacted Linda Sarsour directly to primary Rose who’s not far apart from him ideologically. Sarsour is a Rose supporter in fact but Shcherbenko is smart enough to know that she’s identitarian enough for Staten Island liberal women and progressives overall who could break away from Rose for various reasons. Clearly progressives in the North Shore, if there are any in electoral politics, were not organized in preparing for a DA primary showdown but Congress could be another matter entirely.

Moreover, there is little doubt that if Erica Garner were alive today a very powerful electoral campaign would be fully underway connecting race to class in some capacity with the aims of her achieving office with the full funding and backing of DSA and NYPAN.

More questions linger than answers on the Max Rose front. Did he win because he sounded more populist-like (Sanders) than the austere-like (Clinton)? Looking back more closely at the 2016 Democratic Primary in New York City, Clinton received 63% to Sanders 36%.  In the privileged liberal sector of the Upper East Side Carnegie Hill Clinton tallied a whopping 80% while also getting 76% in Chelsea, 71% on the Upper West Side, and 71% in the hub of forward thought, the West Village.

And when you look at the North Shore, Staten Island where Hillary Clinton easily defeated Bernie Sanders in Mariner’s Harbor, she received 69% of the primary vote, and in Grymes Hill, 75%. Clinton basically won the “progressive” North Shore outright in the primary with the exception of New Brighton. How could the much more progressive Sanders lose to Clinton so easily in the North Shore?

Bernie Sanders had success in New York City when the people in the area were faced with challenges and concerned with more progressive issues. In the 2016 primary Sanders defeated Clinton in Green Point Brooklyn getting 64% of the vote. Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, won “rightwing” Tottenville, Staten Island with 59%, Eltingville with 63%, Oakwood with 60%, New Dorp with 70%, and South Beach with 75%.

Of course the number of Democrats that voted in the primary was less than Republican turnout in these areas, but it still illustrated something about the Sanders phenomena nationally outside of the more bourgeois US power centers and privileged sectors.  In short, Sanders probably would have beaten Trump in a 2016 matchup as Rose defeated Donovan. Rose should take note of this when he thinks about who he will endorse for President in 2020. People that voted for Sanders in the GOP neighborhoods are not entirely dismissive of Manhattanite left and right issues, but they are more concerned with up and down issues.

Ironically though, liberals and non-progressives in the North Shore are so concentrated and powerful that even Sanders delegates can’t support Sanders typed candidates when they run in Staten Island. Retail politicians run on single issues in Staten Island and not wholesale inequality demonstrating a liking for yet a distance from Sanders and a loyalty to the liberal establishment and New York’s political center and governor. It’s all rather strange.

Furthermore, the North Shore voters have spent so much time fixated on defeating Republicans that they can’t properly or honestly calibrate what a progressive foreign, environmental, immigration, over development, and over policing policy looks like within their own Democratic Party at each level. And to make matters worse Staten Island relies on activists who probably don’t always vote to voice these truths.

It is problematic that the average North Shore liberal that admired and talked a big progressive game for insurgent candidates like Zephyr Teachout from afar tend to lose objectivity and actively support Tish James machine type candidates when close to home.

When North Shore sectarian political motivations are divorced from class issues elsewhere on the island these North Shore competing interest groups basically serve as vehicles for middle class voter viability and preservations of power and stake holding.

Max Rose hit the right notes when he addressed working to middle class people that have been betrayed by the neo-liberal establishment and see no American Dream taking shape. They only see more concerns about their own wages, health care, transportation, as they live off of their credit card. The terms Marxism, socialism, resistance, and revolution mean little to them if understood at all.

Although there was not enough Mid-island and especially South Shore voters in support of Sanders to offset Trump in a hypothetical election in those areas, the trend does provide evidence nationally that the menace of Trump could have been defeated if Sanders, even with all of his flaws, had been the nominee. It was the North Shore, not the South Shore or Mid-Island subsets that failed to observe this progressive movement.

But maybe Staten Island is just simply polarized and sectarian. Maybe right wing fanaticism is so ramped that fending off the GOP must be done with safe and careful centrism, but it seems establishment Democrats refuse to even try or test the theory, including “Democrats” from the right that tried to unseat Councilwoman Debi Rose with a Republican.  Additionally, the South Shore canvassing strategy for Rose might be emblematic of the liberal strategy in reaction to Trump overall. That is instead of messaging and campaigning progressively to the left economically of establishment and corporate Democrats, replace the current GOP with center-right Democrats focused on law and order, pride in the uniform, and faith in institutions.

Max Rose is a realist and thinks that there are “smart wars” and “stupid wars.” This basically means we are to only start wars that America can win. This presupposes that America should use power without restraint as long as its short term and long term gains are realized overseas and translate into benefits for the middle class and up at home. This is far from a progressive foreign policy. It doesn’t hurt Rose however because he like “Sanders talked about nationalism like Trump, only removing the white part of it” remarked CSI (CUNY) anthropologist Philippe-Richard Marius. Foreign policy, like race discussion is outside the mind of the average struggling Staten Islander, and it distracts from wages and Medicare-for-All, policies that Max Rose should be embracing.

Politicians and their strategists are less sophisticated than we think. Voters are more sophisticated than we think. For all of the talk about how conservative Staten Island is compared to liberal Brooklyn and liberal Manhattan a closer investigation is needed. Yes, Staten Island is a Republican borough in general, but it is far less conservative and egalitarian than the rest of New York City is liberal and elite, and it is not simply because of the North Shore. Professor Flanagan is correct it’s not like the rest of the city.