NEW YORK — The candidates for Congress in New York City's only swing district are slugging it out in campaign ads that direct much of their fury at a man who isn't on the ballot — Mayor Bill de Blasio.
"Bill de Blasio is the worst mayor in the history of New York City," first-term Congress member Max Rose says of his fellow Democrat in a Sept. 9 digital ad.
"Everybody knows Bill de Blasio is the country's most radical mayor," Republican challenger Nicole Malliotakis counters in a Sept. 22 TV ad.
The second-term mayor and onetime Democratic presidential hopeful is deeply unpopular in New York's 11th Congressional District, which includes the borough of Staten Island plus part of Brooklyn.
Whiter and more conservative than the rest of the city, the district voted for Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by 10 points in 2016 after supporting Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Juliana McGlyn, left, bumps fists with Republican state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, right, as Malliotakis solicited voter support in the Staten Island borough of New York, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
It is a place where law-and-order candidates have historically done well and where some residents resent Blasio's handling of police reform and Black Lives Matter protests.
Rose, a 33-year-old Army veteran who is still a captain in the National Guard, defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Donovan to flip the seat blue in 2018. Malliotakis, a 39-year-old state Assembly member who is running with Trump's support, is aiming to flip it back by painting Rose as too liberal for the district. The race is expected to be close.
"To me, this is a very important election because we do have people who are pushing a socialist agenda," Malliotakis told supporters at a rally last month before introducing her mother, Vera, who fled Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1959.
"Some people in Washington — the obvious ones like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — are trying to bring the very policies to this nation that millions of immigrants like my parents fled," Malliotakis said.
But Rose is no ideological soulmate to Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive standard-bearer who represents a nearby New York City congressional district.
Republican Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, left, talks to Pat and Joe Nugent on Staten Island in New York, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
"When my country went to war in Afghanistan, I put on the uniform," Rose says in an ad released this week. "When Bill de Blasio tried to defund the police, I stood up and said it was 100 percent wrong. And I stood with President Trump when Democrats attacked him for killing an Iranian terrorist. Because when you kill American soldiers, we kill you."
The reference was to the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran's top general, which other Democrats warned could further destabilize the region. Rose said in an interview that Democrats who criticized the Soleimani killing were wrong.
"Qassem Soleimani had the blood of over 600 United States soldiers on his hands," he said. "He had orchestrated far more attacks that injured far more United States soldiers. There's no expiration date on someone facing the consequences for that."
A member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Rose was one of 15 Democrats who did not vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House and one of 18 Democrats who voted against the recent $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill.
"We knew that bill was dead on arrival," Rose said, adding that he wanted Democrats to focus on legislation that would get bipartisan support.
Rose angered some conservative constituents earlier this year by voting to impeach Trump after previously saying that impeachment would "only tear our country further apart." A woman who stopped to argue as Rose campaigned recently outside a supermarket said, "The president is crass and rude but he didn't deserve to be impeached."
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
While Malliotakis, who was first elected to the state Assembly in 2010, is backed by Trump, she hasn't always supported him.
She sought to distance herself from Trump when she was running for mayor, telling the Daily News editorial board that she wished she had cast a write-in vote for Marco Rubio. She now says the comment was "sarcastic" and she supports the president.
Malliotakis was campaigning for a second term when Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses in her district and killing some two dozen Staten Islanders.
"I was out there every day helping people clean up the streets, empty their homes of debris, get them food, get them water, get them clothing," Malliotakis said in an interview.
Malliotakis ran for mayor against de Blasio in 2017 and lost by almost 40 points, but she took two-thirds of the votes in the congressional district she is now seeking to represent.
"We have to give her her credit, she was campaigning against de Blasio before it was cool to campaign against de Blasio," said former Rep. Susan Molinari, a Republican who represented Staten Island in Congress from 1990 to 1997 and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden at this year's Democratic convention.
While Malliotakis and Rose are united in their disdain for de Blasio, they are equally caustic about each other.
U.S. Rep. Max Rose, (D-N.Y.) speaks during a portrait session outside his office in Staten Island, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Malliotakis calls Rose's law enforcement views "radically dangerous" in an ad that implies he supports defunding the police. He says he has never supported such a policy.
Rose calls Malliotakis a "first-class fraud" in his own attack ads and accuses her of profiting from the opioid epidemic that has devastated Staten Island by investing in the pharmaceutical industry.
Malliotakis said she owns 100 shares of Johnson & Johnson. "Every teacher, police officer and firefighter's pension is invested in Johnson & Johnson as well," she said.
Richard Flanagan, a political scientist at the College of Staten Island and co-author of "Staten Island: Conservative Bastion in a Liberal City," said the barrage of negative ads from both candidates may turn voters off.
"I don't think the ads have been particularly effective because it has been so over the top on both sides," Flanagan said, adding that Rose will get a boost from Trump's recent "buffoonery."
De Blasio, meanwhile, has shrugged off the Rose ad that called him the worst mayor ever.
"He's a politician running for office and he's wrong," de Blasio said.