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Culture

Max Rose and Nicole Malliotakis’ campaign ads tell an ugly love story

I have never lived in New York’s 11th Congressional District, and yet I know that its incumbent congressman, Rep. Max Rose, is a hypocrite who has “betrayed the Blue.” I know this because his challenger, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis — a “first-class fraud” who has profited off of the opioid crisis — told me so. I know Malliotakis’ bad qualities because of Rose.

Rose and Malliotakis are fighting to represent Staten Island, N.Y. But even though I grew up in Westchester County (New York’s 17th Congressional District) and have lived in Manhattan since college, I have become intimately familiar with this race since I moved back home this fall via their ubiquitous, acrimonious cable ad buys on CNN.

In a tense election, regularly touted as the most important of our or anyone’s lifetime, it’s easy for some of these House races to get lost in the shuffle. But this tight competition deserves your attention on election night, or at least demands it with a barrage of grisly broadsides. It is a fine dance of name-calling and accusations of flip-flopping. As with any such pas de deux, I hoped it would end in something beautiful: a putting to bed of differences and a celebration of a mutual hatred of New York’s mayor.

This feud — or love story? — goes back a ways.

This cycle, Rose, a veteran who served in Afghanistan and one of several Jewish House Democrats defending formerly Republican seats they won in 2018, first caught my attention with a laconic ad in which he declared, on a Staten Island sidewalk, “Bill de Blasio is the worst mayor in the history of New York City.” (That was the entire ad.)

Malliotakis soon responded by charging that Rose shared de Blasio’s “radical” agenda, which she said includes — and she hammers this home a lot — defunding the police. Her team levied this accusation with some questionable zoom blur transitions and conspicuous stock images, one of which features a guy who looks like Robert Mueller in a doctor’s office.

The ads I’ve seen most since returning to my childhood bedroom touch on the topic of police. This is not unsurprising, given that about 10% of the city’s cops live on Staten Island. In my favorite Malliotakis spot, a retired police officer (speaking to other retired police officers wearing matching blue polos) says of Rose’s record in the House, “97 percent of the time whatever Nancy Pelosi wants him to do, he votes with her.”

The delivery is perfect — halfway between an ad-lib and a scripted line — and you just know that a producer fed him the statistic. On cue, a mustachioed confederate says “He’s his own man, right?” To which the first speaker (also with a mustache) responds, “Oh come on, you don’t have enough puppet strings for him.”

There is no way to believe the exchange was spontaneous, and that is what makes it so charming. One can imagine the pride with which these gentlemen direct their spouses or children to the TV to see their glowing moment in a mudslinging campaign.

Rose parried by going after Malliotakis’ record with a suite of ads showing her reversals on President Trump and his immigration policies. (Malliotakis is herself the daughter of Greek and Cuban immigrants.)

One ad, “First Class Fraud,” features a stentorian voiceover noting that Malliotakis “says she’s against the mayor too, even though she ran a PAC that gave thousands to his campaign,” and shows her shaking de Blasio’s hand.

“It’s everything you hate about politics, all in one person,” the ad concludes of Malliotakis, with a picture of her clenching her jaw and compressing her lips. The Malliotakis ads tend to use an image of Rose pulling a similar expression. (They also are both fond of white and red sans serif fonts.)

It’s not the only place in which one sees parallels between these two soul mates of smear.

Malliotakis has her own hypocrite ad for Rose, “Hypocrite,” which helpfully begins with a definition of the word. The music is “X-Files”-adjacent, and so is the font.

“Rose bragged he’d take on the Washington insiders,” a voiceover says, while a scene from a gray-scale backroom where a bunch of bald, suited men smoke cigars and sip martinis darts across the screen (the “insiders” we presume). The ad then calls Rose out for taking money from special interest groups.

While I am confronted daily with these ads for a race I cannot vote in, I have become oddly invested in the on-air pitch battles and the aesthetics at play in them. They remind me a lot of the kind of escalation found in that one “Mr. Show” sketch where two gentlemen, neither of whom is running for office, launch ad hominem attacks even though they’re fundamentally similar. For all Malliotakis’ talk, Rose is still a centrist, and prior to running for the House, she was a whole lot more moderate as Rose’s ads show.

Eventually, I sense, hatred from two extremes meets in the center and becomes something like affinity. (Both deplore de Blasio — or do they? — and both certainly enjoy a nasty ad.)

But I had no real metric for the pair’s chemistry until last month when the two appeared in a debate on Spectrum NY 1, where Malliotakis completely railroaded Rose when he once again denied that he was for defunding the police.

At this point, Rose did that clenched-mouth-swallowed-lip thing Malliotakis is so fond of highlighting. In this instance, it appeared he was trying to restrain himself from responding to the minute-long interruption — the moderator eventually cut her mic.

What exactly her points were are hard to make out even as she dominated the air, but the display marked the starkest distinction between a pair engaged for months in a game of “I know you are but what am I?” Going by the ads, you’d hardly know there’s a difference, even if that difference is precisely the point.

I won’t miss much about this period in our democratic experiment. But when one of these rivals calls to concede the race sometime in the near future (if not election day), I hope it won’t be the last time they exchange words.

You have to admit, for all the he said she said, they have something special.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

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