Last January, eight-term Long Island Congressman Steve Israel shocked the Beltway by announcing he was leaving the House of Representatives. Now, a year later, he’s found a new home, so to speak, at Long Island University’s campus in Brookville, where he’ll be the chairman of the recently created LIU Global Institute, which will focus on foreign policy and national security issues—some of his favorite subjects. He’ll also be a Distinguished Writer in Residence, where he’ll wield his pen (or keypad) in the cause of political satire, which he did to critical acclaim with the publication of his first satirical novel, The Global War on Morris, in 2014.
When the Press caught up with the 58-year-old former Congressman last week at LIU Post, he was just finishing up the proofs of Big Guns, his second book for Simon & Schuster, which takes aim at the gun lobby. Israel’s official congressional records, providing behind-the-scenes insight on major issues of his time in office such as the aftermath of 9/11, the passage of Obamacare and the Great Recession, will be housed at LIU Post’s B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library. We had to borrow an administrator’s office to talk because his new digs were still being renovated.
When Israel served in Congress, he became a close ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, even though he had once been one of the so-called “Blue Dogs,” a loose coalition of conservative Democrats who voted for the Iraq war and President George W. Bush’s 2001 tax cuts. Starting in 2011, he headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but resigned after the House Democrats lost more ground than expected in the 2014 elections. In this latest election cycle, he led the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which Pelosi helped create to get the message out.
Now Israel is focused on getting the word out himself in academic circles and beyond. He’s no professor, but he thinks he comes prepared for the job.
“In Congress most of what you do is lecturing,” Israel said with a laugh. “I would not presume to be able to profess, but I think I’ve demonstrated an ability to understand the complexity of issues, to get into a room with a large or small group and have positive interactions. Those skills are required of any member of Congress, and I’m looking forward to transferring them to the university.”
The recent debacle of the Democrats’ losing the White House and both the Senate and the House were still weighing heavily on his mind, two weeks before President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“People say, ‘What kind of country could elect Donald Trump?’ Wrong question. ‘At what time could this country elect Donald Trump?’ And it was only in this time,” Israel observed.
In his recent role on the House communications committee, he oversaw focus groups and polling, and became increasingly aware of “this unique convergence of circumstances” that might throw the election to the billionaire. As Israel described them: “An economy that was changing radically for people; a breakdown of faith in all institutions across the board, whether it was government or religion or sports or Wall Street; a sense of personal fear, whether of ISIS or getting shot in a movie theater; and finally, a feeling that democracy just wasn’t working for people anymore. You put those four things together, and you have a moment in time when Donald Trump could get elected.”
Even so, Israel admitted that he didn’t want to believe his own eyes or ears. He said he heard the “first warning bells” when Trump was easily knocking off Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The now-former congressman became aware of “this trauma that was gripping America’s middle class,” as he told his colleagues in their weekly meetings in Washington, but “I wasn’t prescient enough to say that what was going on out there is that Donald Trump is about to become president. I scoffed at it myself. But guess what? We all turned out to be wrong.”
Looking back, he said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Jan. 21, 2010 decision in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case “changed everything.” The conservative ruling opened the doors for corporations and other powerful hidden interests to spend unlimited amounts of money during election campaigns.
“Nobody saw it coming,” said Israel. “Within days, millions and millions of dollars in dark money started showing up on people’s television screens and that resulted in a 63-seat loss for Democrats. We couldn’t compete, so the Supreme Court handed the Republicans the majority…We got wiped out.”
Israel does want to draw an historic parallel today to what happened in January 2009 because he thinks it provides a useful lesson—and can serve as a warning to Republicans about what can go wrong if they get too cocky.
“What I mean is that in January 2009 Democrats elected a Democratic president,” explained Israel. “We brought our majority in the House to its high watermark, and the Senate was secure. And we believed that we were going to be a permanent majority.” A wan smile crossed his face as a shadow seemed to pass before his eyes.
“Within two years we lost it all,” he continued. “Why? Because the argument could be made that we confused a margin as a mandate.” With Democrats in control, “We did a lot of stuff! Now, I happen to think we should have done that stuff because all we had to do was rescue the economy, stop GM from going bankrupt, and pass the Affordable Care Act. But the Republicans created a narrative that ‘They’re going too far too fast.’”
And the story line firmly took hold, Israel said, as the effects rippled through the country, even into Nassau County. “Tom Suozzi, a popular Democrat, loses his executive race,” recalled Israel. “After that, we lose 63 seats in the House, and a year after that, the Senate.”
With a broad grin, Israel exclaimed, “The Republicans are at great and grave risk of doing the same thing. If Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans confuse an Electoral College margin for a national popular mandate and double-down on dumb and reckless stuff, the Democrats will take the House back in two years.”
He pounds the desk for emphasis. “I have news for the Republicans,” Israel continued. “The hardcore Trump supporters want Obamacare to be repealed by Tuesday. When [Congress] can’t do it, they’re not going out and voting for Republicans in 2018. The Republicans risk losing their base in 2018 by not keeping their promises they made in 2016. They are in a jam.”
Israel had made his retirement announcement early enough last year to allow a spirited Democratic primary to find his replacement. After the dust settled, former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi got the nod and went on to beat State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) to represent Long Island’s 3rd Congressional District.
Asked about what key advice the veteran lawmaker gave the new guy in town, Israel said he told Suozzi “about this obscure place in the Capitol that I suggested he visit. Right off the floor of the House is this secreted balcony outside, and it overlooks the Mall and the House office buildings… That’s where members of Congress in both parties sit on patio furniture as human beings in the backyard. You could be on the floor screaming at each other, and then you go off the floor and you can chill out. You can sit and learn that the person on the other side of the aisle is having a hard time with his kids. Or misses her husband or misses his wife. That balcony is where you form friendships on the other side of the aisle, and that’s where things get done.”
Israel remembers sitting on the balcony worried about protecting Long Island Sound, while he was talking to a Republican from Utah, Chris Stewart, who was anxious about preserving wilderness areas in his state.
“We just started sharing our concerns,” Israel recalled. “It turns out that though he may be a pretty conservative Republican, we had the same concerns and we could get things done.” He laughed at the memory but then turned serious.
“What I fear is that there are so few moderate Republicans left [in Congress], and that’s another reason I decided to leave,” Israel said. “There was hardly anybody to work with.”
Flying on Air Force One or sitting with the president in the Oval Office at the White House were definitely “cool,” he admitted, “but it doesn’t compare with just getting things done for people.” In fact, he claimed, “The best time for me in Congress was walking into a VFW post or an American Legion post and giving back pay to a veteran.”
He certainly won’t miss the pressure that being a congressman put on his family life.
“I had too many moments where I was sitting in airplanes on the tarmac listening to the pilot tell me that we were 16th in line for takeoff, that there were thunderstorms between Washington and New York, and dreading the phone call to my daughters telling them that I couldn’t take them to dinner that night,” he said, shaking his head. “There’s nothing worse for me, nothing worse in the world.”
Israel has two daughters, the older one works in New York City in marketing, the younger works on a farm in Suffolk County. He started his political career when he was elected to the Huntington Town Board in 1993 before heading to the nation’s capital. With a laugh, he remarked, “I don’t know why anybody would want to go to Albany!” As for retail politics, he doesn’t foresee a campaign on the horizon. “I don’t see it,” he said. “Do I hope there are several bestselling novels in my future? Absolutely yes!”
He intends to use his new position on campus as “the anchor” that allows him to keep his hand in important policy issues and “shed light on the dark corners of the world.” Still on his own “learning curve,” he won’t start teaching courses until the spring. To mark the official launch of the Global Institute, he invited former Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Tilles Center at LIU Post on March 2.
When LIU President Kimberly Cline reached out to him about coming to Brookville, “she didn’t have to make too strong a case,” he said. “I love this institution.” He also admires Cline’s program to teach students about micro-financing in impoverished countries and send them to different parts of the world to make a difference, whether it’s bringing solar panels to a poor village in India or getting a small farm off the ground in Africa.
“We’re going to organize students and teach them how to do those things, and then deploy them,” Israel said. “That’s the vision—and that’s what really drew me to LIU—the willingness of the president to engage in those kinds of world game-changers.”
As the new institute’s chairman, he said, “We’re going to provide Long Islanders with some context on why global crises impact their local pocketbooks—and we’ll go beyond that.”
As LIU Post’s writer in residence, he intends to use satire as his weapon, because this era calls for it.
“Satirists always thrive in the darkest of times,” Israel noted. “Satire doesn’t really work when people are happy, you know, when there’s nothing to poke fun at. When you look at the greatest satirical works in literary history, the only way to criticize power was through satire. I think there’s going to be a ton of satire over the next four years.”
Israel said he had 95 percent of his second novel completed before Trump looked like a presidential possibility, so the billionaire doesn’t play much of a part in Big Guns. But “there are some very recognizable figures,” he smirked. He’s not worried about libel suits, either:
“If Dick Cheney did not sue me for libel on the first book, he’s not going to sue me for libel on the second.”
Photo: Former U.S. Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) will be the chairman of Long Island University’s Global Institute, a Distinguished Writer in Residence, and will continue penning satirical novels. (Long Island Press / Spencer Rumsey)