Bianca Johnson may wind up being a key political indicator in the outcome for New York’s 11th Congressional District race, a highly anticipated rematch between Democrat Max Rose and Republican incumbent Rep. Nicole Malliotakis.
A Black Democrat on Staten Island, the 22-year-old grew up and still lives in St. George, a racially diverse and solidly blue neighborhood. She views abortion rights as “crucial” and considers Democrats to be the party of the middle class.
All the same, Johnson is torn about the two candidates.
“It seems like we're still getting pretty negatively affected by the inflation and everything that's going on,” she said, sitting outside the St. George Ferry terminal. “So should I pick another Democrat? Or maybe, should I go with a Republican and see what happens?”
With five weeks to go until Election Day, the race is echoing a midterm election battle that is playing out nationally. The 11th Congressional District, which covers the borough of Staten Island and parts of southern Brooklyn, is among those that Democrats are hoping to flip to keep their thin majority in the House. It’s the only New York City congressional district that’s represented by a Republican.
It seems like we're still getting pretty negatively affected by the inflation and everything that's going on. So should I pick another Democrat? Or maybe, should I go with a Republican and see what happens?
While Rose has largely staked his campaign on abortion rights, interviews with voters in the conservative-leaning district suggest that issues around the economy, crime and immigration are also at the forefront. In some cases, they are throwing traditional party allegiances into doubt.
Rose has showed little sign of shying away from a focus on abortion rights.
In an interview, he acknowledged that voters were “complicated” and no singular issue would win the race. But he also described the right to make reproductive health decisions as “absolutely essential.”
“It gets to the very fiber of who we are as a nation. And it's in danger,” he said.
On Monday, his campaign released a new ad on Twitter accusing Malliotakis of voting against abortion even in cases of rape, incest and where the life of a mother is at risk.
The 30-second video shows a man coming home to an empty house as the sound of a heart monitor flatlines in the background, presumably representing the death of his pregnant partner. It was initially flagged by Twitter for some users as “age-restricted adult content” but the label was taken down in the evening following an angry appeal from Rose’s campaign.
Malliotakis’ campaign criticized the ad, which will also run on TV, as a misrepresentation of the congresswoman’s views. “She supports exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother,” said Natalie Baldasarre, a spokesperson, in a statement.
‘Definitely an underdog’
The political makeup of the district makes elections difficult to predict. Democrats make up 45% of the electorate against 35% of Republicans along with members of the Conservative and Independence parties, according to John Mollenkopf, the director of CUNY’s Center for Urban Research, which tracks voting trends. The remaining 20% of voters are unaffiliated.
One thing is certain, Staten Island will count heavily. The borough makes up three quarters of likely voters in the district, according to Mollenkopf’s analysis.
But by most estimates, Rose faces an uphill battle: he is trying to unseat a Republican incumbent in a district that was won by both President Donald Trump in 2020 and Curtis Sliwa, the Republican nominee for mayor, in 2021.
“No one can say he doesn’t stand a chance but he’s definitely an underdog,” said Sal Albanese, a former Democratic Brooklyn City Councilmember who now lives on Staten Island.
Rose, a decorated war veteran, won the seat as a centrist Democrat in 2018 — the year billed as a referendum on President Donald Trump — but lost to Malliotakis two years later. His defeat was partly attributed to his attendance in a Black Lives Matter protest following the police killing of George Floyd that Malliotakis portrayed as anti-police.
Malliotakis marked a sharper turn to the right for the district. She voted against certifying the 2020 presidential results and impeaching Trump a second time.
Still, Albanese said he believed this summer’s unexpected overturning of Roe v. Wade had given Rose a jolt of momentum and that abortion rights could in fact energize voters.
But he added: “Whether it’s enough to prevail, it’s hard to quantify.”
Both candidates are well-funded. Rose has around $2 million on hand in his campaign war chest. Malliotakis has $2.6 million in cash on hand, according to campaign finance records.
Rose notably deviates from most Democrats on crime, supporting tougher bail laws. The area is home to police officers, firefighters and emergency medical workers that are sympathetic to law-and-order appeals.
Republicans have cornered the issue of crime, said Richard Flanagan, a political science professor at the College of Staten Island.
“The symbolism of crime resonates here even though crime is low in this district,” Flanagan said.
However, the city’s latest data shows that overall major crimes have risen around 34% on Staten Island, a little more than the increase citywide.
Crime, quality of life concerns and a migrant crisis
Malliotakis, whose campaign did not make available for an interview, has sought to focus the discussion on kitchen-table issues like rising prices and crime. She has also taken on immigration amid New York City’s struggles to address the ongoing migrant crisis, writing an Op-Ed in the New York Post attacking the Biden administration’s border policy.
Her platform may sway voters in New Springville, a residential neighborhood located in the heart of Staten Island, where American flag-themed signs for Malliotakis outnumbered those for Rose.
At a Dunkin’ Donuts inside a strip mall on a rainy Sunday, Irwin Ostrov said he was a Democrat but shifted his support to Malliotakis after progressive members of the party supported the “defund the police” movement.
“The Democrats went bad, basically. They’re weak now,” Ostrov said.
Outside an old courthouse in St. George, Michelle Ruggiero said she intends to vote for Malliotakis. A South Shore resident who described herself a “very old” Democrat, she cited public safety and quality of life as her main concerns. At one point, she lamented over news that Mayor Eric Adams, a centrist Democrat, was in talks to house migrants in a cruise ship docked at Staten Island.
“I want my kids to have a good place to live,” Ruggiero said, adding, “It doesn't look like that's happening.”
Pro-choice and anti-Trump voters
Chris Coffey, a Democratic strategist who is not working for either campaign, said Rose has little choice but to make abortion rights a signature talking point.
“I think it's harder for a Democrat in Staten Island to run on crime,” he said. “And the economy is at best, an even issue. So I think you've seen more on abortion because that's an issue that trends in favor for Democrats and independents and even many moderate Republicans.”
Political experts say the abortion issue could be decisive in turning out voters in an election where turnout will be key.
Dan Agius, the owner of a plumbing company in Richmond, said he plans to vote for Rose.
...I think you've seen more on abortion because that's an issue that trends in favor for Democrats and independents and even many moderate Republicans.
A navy veteran, he credited both the candidate’s pro-choice stance and their shared military background.
Rose has had to walk a political tightrope when it comes to Trump. In 2019, he voted to impeach the former president after initially holding out.
But Malliotakis’ association with Trump could help him win over some Democrats and swing voters. The congresswoman touts the former president’s endorsement on her campaign website.
“I think she's a travesty, like all Trump supporters,” said Cam Monge, a Staten Island ferry rider and North Shore resident. “So I would like her to go away.”
Robert Long, a Rose supporter who has lived on Staten Island for a decade, expressed similar disdain for Malliotakis.
“She was a Trump supporter,” he said. “I can’t abide by anybody that’s that ignorant.”
Long cited Rose’s positions on abortion as well as his relatively tougher stance on crime compared to other Democats.
He also praised Rose’s willingness to work with Republicans, a waning practice in an increasingly polarized Congress.
“Nobody seems to want to work together,” Long said.