Max Rose helped flip the House in 2018 by flipping a district covering Staten Island and a slice of south Brooklyn that had voted for a Democrat just once in nearly 40 years—New York City’s Trump Country. He did it by running against both parties, by being blunt and brash, and by running as a soldier—Army vet, Bronze Star, Purple Heart—using imagery from his time in combat in Afghanistan in ads and on paraphernalia he passed out when knocking on doors or talking to voters in bars while drinking Bud Light. He was, he said, ready to head to Congress for a new kind of fight.
This month, at the epicenter of the scourge of the coronavirus that’s upended American life, Rose, a captain in the Army National Guard, deployed again—the first member of Congress to do so at this time in his or her district. With members of his unit he spent two weeks turning a Staten Island psychiatric center into an emergency hospital for patients with Covid-19. Rose, 33, is the son of a medical laboratory executive and a professor of social work. He’s a graduate of Wesleyan University and the London School of Economics and a former nonprofit healthcare company chief of staff. His title here was operations officer, but he did the nitty-gritty as well. “I’m fairly certain,” said Dr. Brahim Ardolic, the executive director of Staten Island University Hospital, “I saw Max Rose making a bed.”
On Thursday, as he shifted back into his congressional duties, I spoke by phone with Rose. In spite of his spirited, sometimes profane speaking style, he always has chosen his words with care when discussing Donald Trump. Given the political lean of New York’s 11th, he hesitated to voice support for impeachment before finally voting yes on both counts. And while he told me “nothing” would make him happier than seeing Trump succeed in his response to this pandemic—even if it meant him getting reelected—Rose also said the president whom many of his constituents support isn’t doing close to enough. In this conversation, which has been edited lightly for length and clarity, Rose talked about what it’ll take for Joe Biden to beat him come November. He talked about how this is not the time for politics but is the time for government. Good government. Big government. Send-a-man-to-the-moon government. How it saved his life when he was a soldier. How it’s now the only thing he believes can save the lives of thousands of others.
MICHAEL KRUSE: Paint me a picture of New York, and of South Brooklyn, and of Staten Island specifically. How does it feel there right now?
MAX ROSE: Well, the thing to understand about my entire congressional district is that it when it comes to keeping New Yorkers safe, keeping New Yorkers healthy, keeping New York clean, keeping the lights on in New York—the people that do that [work] come from my district. I have a disproportionate number of these public servants living in my district, a disproportionate number of nurses, a disproportionate number of medical professionals. And it’s these folks who are on the front lines, who are the soldiers in this war. … But there’s a deep sense that this disease could be lurking, this virus could be lurking anywhere. That vigilance wears on you.
KRUSE: How do you feel that on the ground?
ROSE: It reminds me in some ways of when I was in Afghanistan. Whenever you left the wire, you had to be hyper-, hyper-aware that an IED could be anywhere. It could be that pile of trash to the right of the road. But I do believe that if people leave their homes now, they’re feeling this oddly similar sense—that this virus could be anywhere. And the human body isn’t built to maintain that level of vigilance. It wears on you in all different types of ways. But let me also just say that—and I saw this at this hospital that we just stood up—this crisis has brought out the best in people. I served with medical professionals whose own family members were sick, whose own family members were on the brink of death, and they continued to drive on and be the heroes that they are.
KRUSE: You’ve just been to the front line of this new kind of war. Walk me through that.
ROSE: So, what is the nature of this new fight? I think there’s really three stages. The first stage is you build out the capacity of your preexisting hospital, you find that conference room, you turn it into another hospital bed, you increase the number of staff, you increase the number of ventilators. You basically try to get that hospital to accomplish as much as possible. But that has a limit. Then we can go to the second stage, which is where we were [deployed], which is to basically establish ancillary facilities to those hospitals. But it has to be a real hospital. That is much more complicated than just building a bed. You have to bring in the hospital’s supply system, the hospital’s IT system, everything. So we set out over the course of 10 days or so to stand up a Covid-only facility. The goal was to seamlessly integrate this facility to the adjacent Staten Island University hospital system, which is part of the Northwell family. This was a psychiatric center. It had roughly 240 or so rooms. We couldn’t use the beds because the beds couldn’t incline. So we had to bring in 240 or so new beds. The psychiatric center wasn’t built for oxygen. So what do you do? And so the state stepped up and sent oxygen concentrators and you plug them into every room to where now you’re providing oxygen to every patient. Then you say, ‘OK, well, what else do we need?’ You need garbage cans in every room, you need surge protectors in every room. You need commodes, you need shower chairs. You bring the Northwell IT system over and you bring computers over and you integrate that. It’s well beyond just the conversation of how many beds do you have. We were standing up an integrated hospital, and to watch these folks do this, and do it quickly, and innovate on the fly—truly, truly awe-inspiring.
KRUSE: Two years ago, sitting in Jody’s Club Forest, we were drinking Bud Lights. And you said you wanted “Democrats to be Democrats again.” You said, “If you’re telling me you think government has a role for this country, then say it.” So here we are in April 2020. We’re in the midst of a pandemic and resulting economic devastation. What must government be and do in the months and years to come?
ROSE: Interesting to look back on that quote during a time like this. There’s a few things unequivocally that the federal government has to be doing. First off is taking over the production of critical medical supplies. We can analogize this with Iraq and Afghanistan, but the analogy is actually far more fitting to World War II. Total war. Taking over the production of PPE in every way, shape and form possible to make sure that states and municipalities aren’t fighting one another. That’s step one. Step two is not just restricting that to PPE but also pushing that to reagents, and laboratory equipment and antibodies, because it is going to take a critical federal governmental role to allow us to ease into an opening of the economy.
If you actually want to do that, you’re going to have to have a massive presence of antibodies, testing and PPE, in order to get somewhat—we’re not gonna get back to normal—but some semblance of normalcy. And nobody, no institution, no non-profit, no coalition, no business can do that but the federal government. None. Just as no one but the federal government could storm the beaches of Normandy. Just as no one but the federal government could send a man to the moon. Just as no one but the federal government could win the Cold War. We are in exactly the same situation. No one but the federal government can get this done. Then the next thing is that we have got to build the infrastructure for surging in the hot spots and doing it very, very quickly. Surging medical professionals. Surging equipment. And then lastly the federal government, using technology as well as personnel and resources, has got to build out a system for testing more than 10 million people per day. More than 10 million people per day have to be tested for the virus and as well have to be tested for antibodies. And then we have to have an elaborate system for contact tracing.
KRUSE: So how’s the federal government doing?
ROSE: Nothing would make me happier, nothing, than to see this president utilize all the tools at his disposal to win this war as the commander in chief that he is, and to own that success. And if that success means that we beat Covid and he wins reelection, then so be it. God bless him. Because we have won the greatest battle of the 21st century. But I have not seen his administration assert its authority in the ways that it could. Think back again to the analogy of World War II. We built factories and then mandated that the private sector take them over. We put people to work in terms of wartime jobs. That wasn’t just the patriotic thing to do. That was absolutely vital because people needed work. And we very well might find ourselves in that situation again. Because put yourself in the shoes of 3M. Think about what 3M is thinking. They’re thinking, ‘I don’t know when this demand is going hit, but I don’t think the demand’s going to be there five years from now because there’s going to be a vaccine. So I’m not going to build 10 new factories, which is what I have to do to satisfy the demand for the next 12 months.’ The federal government needs to step in and make sure that those 10 new factories are built, and make sure they’re built in America. Only the federal government can do that.
KRUSE: So what specifically hasn’t President Trump been doing that he should be doing in this regard?
ROSE: Here’s a few things. One: Streamlining who’s in charge. There’s too many task forces going on. Second thing is he needs to assert all of his Defense Production Act authority over the production and dissemination of critical supplies from ventilators to masks to reagents to all of the equipment necessary to test people or the virus. The third thing is I believe that he should be asserting or utilizing the Pentagon supply management acumen for the dissemination of these critical supplies within the country. It is shockingly similar to the dissemination of beans and bullets and bombs. You have to calculate a burn rate. You have to calculate where the supplies are most needed and you have to figure out how to get them there as quickly as possible. The states and cities, especially the ones hardest hit, like New York, should not be asked to spend a dime on this when they’re going through an economic crisis of their own.
KRUSE: What are you hearing from your constituents? What are their concerns and their fears right now?
ROSE: People desperately want to know that, should they be going through a Covid-related health care crisis that there’s hospital beds, fully equipped, ready for them. Second thing is the economic crises that people are going through—some small business owners getting access to small business funds, the people trying to get the unemployment assistance that they so desperately need. It’s the person whose father is hospitalized and hasn’t heard from him in a few weeks. It’s the police officer who needs to get a test much quicker. It’s the bus driver who needs to get a mask every single day and gloves.
KRUSE: When was the last time you heard from a constituent about impeachment and how you handled it?
ROSE: Impeachment will always come up in conversation. It was a significant decision and a significant moment in this nation’s history. But with that being said, the community has stepped up and is not thinking about politics.
KRUSE: What does campaigning look like right now for you?
ROSE: Let me be very clear. I don’t give a fuck about politics right now. That includes my own campaign. But it remains to be seen what a campaign looks like, and how a campaign can be executed faithfully.
KRUSE: Most prognosticators are calling your race a toss-up. Do you think your race is a toss-up?
ROSE: They said I couldn’t win the last time.
KRUSE: You endorsed Mike Bloomberg for president in January—first member of Congress to do so …
ROSE: Man, that seems like a lifetime ago!
KRUSE: It does. And then you endorsed Joe Biden in March, which also seems like a lifetime ago. What does Joe Biden need to do to beat Donald Trump come November?
ROSE: First and foremost, the showing of empathy for the incredible pain that the American people, pain and sacrifice, that the American people are enduring right now. Nobody, or at least very few people, are immune from this crisis—unlike anything that we’ve experienced this century. And then, clearly, he is showing that he has the capacity to lead on day one because I do believe that on day one, whichever presidency begins or continues in 2021, Covid will be number one on the list. This crisis will still be here. And then number two on that list will be making sure that we are never caught flat-footed ever again.
KRUSE: Are you worried at all about the election even happening in November?
ROSE: I think that’s something that we have to keep in mind. Not whether or not it will happen but how it will happen.
KRUSE: I was at a fundraiser for you eons ago. Snowy night. Staten Island. And you told a story about being in a Stryker and then hitting an IED and getting medivaced and how a general said [to you], ‘Five years ago, son, you’d be dead.’ You weren’t dead because Congress had finally gotten its act together and put partisanship aside and made those Strykers better equipped and that you’re alive because of what ‘Congress is actually capable of.’ You wanted to go down to Congress because Congress needed to get back to that. In the current context of this pandemic and economic devastation, how’s that going? How is Congress doing in its response to this?
ROSE: How it’s going is we’re still struggling to work towards the fulfillment of that north star. In the era of Covid it’s difficult to talk about anything else without seeming quaint. But I do believe that we showed tangible success in terms of our legislative achievements. And these are not just things that passed the House. These are things that were signed by the president of the United States. Sanctions on Chinese pharmaceutical companies who are the principal purveyors of Fentanyl that’s killing kids in my district. My bill. Split-tolling on the Verrazano bridge—gonna take thousands of trucks off the road in Staten Island and south Brooklyn. My bill. Finally initiating the seawall project on the east shore of Staten Island, one of the largest resiliency projects throughout the country, let alone in New York City, that will keep people safe in my district in the next superstorm and lower their flood insurance in the process. Again, my bill. … So we have been able to show progress. Is it enough? Absolutely not.
The deeper point that I was always trying to make is that government is not something that we can ignore, that we can sideline. It is something that is vital. Because it saves lives, it does things that no one else can do, and it is what we turn to in moment of crises such as now. And just as it’s government that got the Double V-Hull that saved not only my life, because that’s not nearly as important as the fact that it saved the lives of people that I sincerely love, who I was entrusted in leading. And that was not inevitable, that Double V-Hull. It was not inevitable. Just as right now the millions of tests that we need, the millions of daily antibody tests that we need, the thousands of integrated, complex hospital beds with medical staff attached to it that we desperately need, the hundreds of millions of PPE that we need—those are not inevitable. But they’re possible with government leadership. And we’ve got to get it done.