The redistricting of 2012 opened the door for New York Congressman Steve Israel to step into the political consciousness of northeast Queens, but despite conventional wisdom his national job as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) wasn’t enough to raise his name recognition, it was a strong grassroots campaign initiative which helped ensure victory on Election Day.
He didn’t grow up in Queens, but he spent every Sunday here with his grandparents and his dad in the shadow of Shea Stadium, dreaming of someday playing centerfield for the New York Mets.
Being new to the area, over the summer his campaign team launched a concentrated effort to raise name recognition in Queens. Virtually overnight, campaign signs peppered the neighborhood, bumper stickers were given out, and soon civic groups and political organizations met members of his campaign team.
Israel’s iconic green and blue “Steve Israel t-shirt” became ubiquitous throughout the new parts of New York’s fifth CD running from the tip of Whitestone and as far South as Glen Oaks. But some questions remain, who is Steve Israel, what does he stand for, and what will he do for Queens?
Steve grew up in Long Island, deep in Nassau County in Dix Hills, so naturally the question arises, does Israel know what he is getting into with us Queens folk? We don’t know for sure, yet, but what we do know is that Israel hit the campaign trail with style and it’s been hard to ignore.
To put his ear to the beat of the neighborhood, Steve began visiting the Democratic clubs, including the Clinton Democratic Club, where he was welcomed with much fanfare. Upon meeting Israel, the club’s president, Paul Vallone, concluded, “He’s an exemplary leader for New York.”
Israel made further rounds at the FDR Democratic Club, and then with a plethora of civic groups and senior centers all the while meeting one on one with community leaders. Last week Israel was greeting voters at Waldbaum’s in Bay Terrace.
Who is he, where does he stand? Steve Israel has a strong progressive record. “Steve Israel is a champion of progressive values in the United States Congress and has done an excellent job to restore the Democratic Majority in the house,” according to Steve Behar, a community advocate for northeast Queens and a national figure in progressive politics.
But with a fickle constituency like in northeast Queens – a place where large pockets of voters register as Democrats but tend to lean Republican – Israel will have to remain cordial and open to a sense of pragmatism to transcend these differences and win the hearts of this odd mix.
So far he’s off to a great start. “I don’t care if they’re Dems or Republicans – for me before I was taught to be a Democrat, I was taught to be a Mets fan,” joked Israel – a sound bite that will bode well with voters in northeast Queens.
The political world might see Rep. Israel as the chairman of the powerful DCCC, but first and foremost comes the needs of his constituency. “My primary job is to be the representative and my part-time job is to try and take the majority,” said Israel. His statement expressed the dichotomy of his role as both a member of Congress to provide services for the new constituency and as DCCC Chair to help elect Democrats across the nation, however the line between the two can sometimes be blurry. During the interview he emphasized that the needs of the district will be his primary objective but in regards to strategy to retake the majority (which he believes will also serve not only the district, but the entire country) Israel said it’s very straightforward. It’s mostly raising awareness. “We want to remind people under the Republican majority a budget was passed that ends Medicare in order to fund tax cuts for millionaires…the Republican majority for 24 months has been trying to shut down Planned Parenthood instead of trying to open up small businesses.”
He continued, “big corporations that want to outsource jobs to China and receive tax breaks when instead we should be making it easier for middle class families to afford college in New York.” Israel believes we should expand student assistance programs, including amending the tax code. “Middle class families should be able to write off a big part of their college investments. That is a much better investment to growing an economy than letting a giant corporation write off the cost of opening up a plant in China,” the influential Dem said.
The Congressman’s voting record is as liberal progressive as his talking point. On abortion he is pro-choice (NARAL gave him a 100 rating) and he supported same-sex marriage in 2010. Year after year he receives an ‘F’ from the National Rifle Association for his position on gun rights. On the economy, Israel believes in reducing defense spending and increasing income tax brackets in order to balance the budget. In the past he has advocated for federal spending as a means of promoting economic growth and he believes in providing tax incentives to businesses for the purpose of job creation.
In 2007 Israel voted YES on regulating the subprime mortgage industry. In 2009, he voted yes for senate pay raises and in 2006 a no for requiring photo-IDs for federal elections. Israel is against privatization of social security into personal spending accounts and he staunchly defends the Affordable Care Act, or what even President Obama now calls Obamacare.
Ethics reform is also a major part of his platform. I spoke candidly to him about lobbyists in their dual role as campaign managers, funneling clients and money back and forth, specifically mentioning Evan Stavisky and the Parkside Group and the need for regulation, but he said he wasn’t familiar with the issue and quickly pivoted, raising the ethical dilemmas of Super PACs. “I have heard plenty of concerns about ethics with respect to elected officials but I have not heard the issue of whether campaign managers should be regulated. I will say that I think this country is in need of fundamental campaign finance reform. You know have these super PACs sanctioned by the Supreme Court that can spend anything, spend any amount, not have to disclose who they are, and they’re funded by special interests who are trying to steal elections. We ought to ban them.”
In his latest initiative Israel introduced legislation to reform the electoral college which would in effect make campaigns more competitive as well as advocating for weekend voting to increase turnout in federal elections.
As chairman of the DCCC, Israel oversees a sophisticated propaganda outfit. He can dump a fortune into your campaign war chest and optimize the use of media to sway the hearts and minds of the electorate. For example last August, ahead of the House vote to repeal Obamacare, the DCCC went on the offensive with their “Drive for 25″ campaign which targeted vulnerable GOP lawmakers on healthcare ahead of the House vote.
The initiative included television ads, online videos and robo-calls, however, despite the DCCC’s best efforts, the plan was ineffective as the Republican controlled House repealed all or parts of the Affordable Care Act more than 33 times. The ads ranged from the awe-inspiring (Check out “Health Care Victory”) to the whimsical (See The Millionaires video regarding Bobby Shilling).
While the leadership position comes with such privileges as helping fellow Dems get elected, it has also cast Israel as a national target for Republicans and the far right. Recent attacks include a NY Post story that suggested Israel’s support of the TARP program is the reason he was granted a ‘bailout’ for his home in Dix Hills. State GOP Chairman Ed Cox didn’t waste any time urging an investigation by the House Ethics Committee. “The Congressman has taken advantage of his position to qualify for a debt reduction that is supposed to be reserved for hard-working families that are experiencing a financial set back,” said Cox, adding, “It is not for a congressman that wants to avoid his obligations and a personal financial loss.”
Israel said he wasn’t fazed by the scurrilous accusations. “It’s politics as usual that Republicans, who are trying to end Medicare, would find phony issues to raise against me,” he said. “It’s unfortunate when you’re one of the national leaders trying to stop Republicans from ending Medicare to fund tax cuts for millionaires, then you should expect to be a target of their attacks – it doesn’t surprise me.”
There are plenty of battles for Steve Israel to fight for in this part of Queens, but for now the Congressman from Long Island is busy building bridges on both sides of the aisle to focus on issues challenging middle class families. “Whether you’re living in Wyandach or Whitestone it’s about strengthening the economic recovery and protecting Medicare for Seniors, and stabilizing taxes.”
Visiting Queens is something he has done for his entire life, so naturally we wanted to know his favorite deli. Cherry Valley? Chrisite’s? No, the Congressman’s favorite deli is Ben’s Kosher in Bay Terrace. He told me a story about how he how he competed in a New York deli fundraiser competition in Washington – an annual tradition in it’s 30th year run by Congressman Gary Ackerman where competitors would invite the best deli to the Hill and present a full spread to Congressman Ackerman to judge the winner. Israel chose Ben’s Deli and his competition, U.S Rep. Jerry Nadler, chose Liebman’s Deli of Brooklyn. Each won in respective categories.