Steve Israel was first elected to Congress in 2000. (Photo credit: Long Island Press)

U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) announced Tuesday that he won’t seek re-election in November, citing a desire to frequent some of his favorite New York diners and dedicate more time to writing his second novel.

Now the scramble is on to fill his seat. Israel says he hopes it will remain in Democratic hands.

“Nearly 16 years ago, I was honored to take the oath of office and stand on the House floor for the first time,” Israel said in a statement. “Now, I’ve decided to leave the House in 2017. I hope to continue to be involved in public service, but it is time for me to pursue new passions and develop new interests, mainly spend more time writing my second novel.”

Israel was first elected to Congress in 2000 when he won the race for what is now the 3rd Congressional District, which includes much of Nassau’s Gold Coast and parts of western Suffolk County, after his predecessor, Republican Rick Lazio, vacated his seat to make an unsuccessful run for U.S. Senate.

“I want to be a team player and ensure that my district, which is the only competitive district in the House Democratic Leadership, remains in the hands of Democrats when I leave,” he said.

Israel expressed confidence that November’s presidential election will inspire Democrats, who historically don’t vote in off-year elections, to flood the polls.

“It has been an incredible and humbling opportunity to serve my community,” Israel said. “Simply put, it’s time to pass on the torch.”

Israel’s first book, The Global War on Morris, was published in December 2014. His next book, Big Guns, is reportedly a satire on the gun lobby.

The 57-year-old veteran lawmaker grew up in Levittown. He later served on the Huntington town council before running for Congress.

Israel’s announcement comes nearly two years to the day that fellow Democrat, former U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, announced her retirement plans after serving 17 years in Congress.

Democrats managed to hold on to McCarthy’s seat when Kathleen Rice, the former Nassau District Attorney, won a close race for the 4th Congressional seat. On the East End, long-time Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop lost the 1st Congressional District in 2014 to then-New York State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley).

Until Israel made his announcement this week, the battle over Zeldin’s seat was drawing national attention from both parties. At the moment, former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and former Suffolk Planning Commission chairman and venture capitalist David Calone are vying to be the Democratic nominee.

The only other Congressional seat fully on Long Island has long been held by U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who represents the South Shore of Nassau and Suffolk counties. U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens) represents a sliver of western Nassau. Both lawmakers routinely fend off challengers by large percentages at the polls.

As for replacing Israel, no candidate has formally declared, although that announcement could come very soon. So far, Democratic names bandied about include former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi; Suffolk Legis. Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills), who’s being term-limited out of the legislature; Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove); and North Hempstead Councilwoman Anna Kaplan. The most prominent Republican to step forward so far is state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Old Westbury), the former Mineola mayor who’s said he’s “strongly considering running.” Other potential Republican candidates include Assemb. Andrew Raia (R-East Northport), Assemb. Chad Lupinacci (R-Huntington) and Suffolk Leg. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga).

This list of wannabees could grow or shrink significantly in the days ahead once the dust settles.

Israel rose to prominence within Democratic House leadership and served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for two terms. But he chose not to seek another term as chairman following a brutal showing by Democrats in the 2014 mid-term elections. At the time, Israel said he had made his decision that spring, adding that the nationwide bludgeoning had no bearing on his decision. He currently serves as chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

Early in 2015, U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) took over as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after Israel stepped down.

“Steve Israel is a great colleague, strategist, mentor and friend, and he will be greatly missed after he leaves Congress,” said Luján in a statement. “Steve will continue to be an active force this year, a leader of House Democrats, and a champion of the issues that matter to hardworking families on Long Island and across the county. I wish him great luck in the next phase of his career.”

As for New York’s 3rd Congressional District, Israel won it handily despite Republicans’ nationwide gains: he had 58.2 percent of the vote in 2012 and 54.8 percent in 2014. According to the DCCC, the currently configured district would have been won by both Sen. John Kerry and Vice President Al Gore, and the Democrats hold an 8.2 point advantage in party registration over the Republicans: 38.3 percent to 30.1 percent.

“I am fully confident that Democrats will continue to hold this reliably Democratic district, particularly in a Presidential year,” added Luján.

Democrats need to win back 30 seats on Election Day to regain the majority in the House of Representatives. Currently holding 188 seats, it’s the fewest the Democrats have had since 1947, according to Congressional Quarterly.

—with Rashed Mian

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