Steve Israel

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Former U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is a political novelist and CNN contributor. He is currently the Chair of the Global Institute at Long Island University. His next book, "Big Guns," will be released in April.

Taking Aim at Nuts With Guns

I grew up in Levittown in the 1960s and 1970s. Like most gray-haired baby boomers, I remember the “air-raid drill.”

It entailed being escorted out of my classroom, lined up against the cold brick hallway walls, and told to put my hands atop my head so when that nuclear fireball erupted, incinerating anything and everything for miles around us, we’d be okay. I also remember seeing those little yellow signs posted on the exterior of public buildings: FALLOUT SHELTER.

I wasn’t sure what Khrushchev and Brezhnev had against Levittown. But it seemed as if we were a target. Was it our shopping centers? Was it Mr. Gateson, my fourth-grade teacher? Or was my father really not a “sales rep” and instead, an agent of the CIA?

As alarming as those drills were, I remember goofing off in those hallways. Even at a young age, something told us not to worry. Thirty thousand nuclear missiles pointed right at us seemed a distant threat.

Compare that to the threats our children must constantly process: the very clear and present danger of a shooting in their school. So grave that the president of the United States has endorsed training old Mr. Gateson to carry a weapon into a fourth-grade classroom.

Gun lobbyists chant that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun. Whether that applies to gym teachers I’ve had is debatable. What is not debatable is that the best way to reduce gun violence is to make it harder for people with mental illnesses, criminals and terrorists to get guns.

Facts are facts. This is irrefutable: In the U.S. and around the world, where there are sane gun security rules, far fewer children are murdered in their schools. It’s the exception to the rule, not the weekly “Breaking News.”

Please don’t tell me that’s fake news or alternative facts. People throw out that canard when they have no intellectual leg to stand on.

Why doesn’t Congress stand up to the gun lobby? More than 80 percent of Americans support universal background checks and “No Fly, No Buy.” Republicans and Democrats alike. Even most NRA members.

Here’s why: After votes on gun security measures in Congress were defeated, a moderate Republican who voted against each measure confessed to me how embarrassed he was.

“So, why’d you vote that way?” I asked. His answer: “Going back home with a bad vote on guns is politically nuts.”

When members of Congress are more concerned with nuts with guns, our children and grandchildren will be safer.

Steve Israel’s next novel “Big Guns” may be ordered at repsteveisrael.com or directly from your local bookstore.

Congress Keeps Shooting Blanks at Gun Issue

It’s tragically ironic that I left Congress to write novels, and that my next book deals with why Congress does nothing on the issue of gun violence.

I started writing my book in December 2012, as I sat in my local office in Hauppauge. The Sandy Hook massacre had killed 26 children and adults. I watched families clutching each other. Watched tears stream down then-President Obama’s face. Watched the pundits and commentators assure us that Congress would act. Finally. That the murders of our precious children would not be in vain.

I knew back then that I’d be inundated with questions about how Congress would respond. Would it enhance background checks? Reinstate the assault weapons ban? Limit magazine capacities?

I was confident that we would do something. Doing nothing when our schoolchildren are massacred would be the most shameless act of cowardice in recent congressional history. Back then, I couldn’t believe that Congress would put political calculation ahead of kids.

I was wrong. We did nothing. Zero.

Since then, there have been 200 other school shootings that killed 400 people, according to the Gun Violence Archive. And what has Congress done? Again, nothing.

I witnessed hard lessons. About Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions, voter  intensity, base politics, the might of gun manufacturers, the competition within the gun lobby. So I wrote.

Sitting through hearings and markups and the most asinine debates imaginable. Hearing some of my colleagues defend the rights of suspected terrorists to carry weapons instead of the right of students not to be shot in their classrooms. Listening, while almost punching through my keyboard, as my colleagues explained that this was a mental health problem while doing nothing to increase resources for, mental health.

In this case, their cheap talk was deadly. I became pretty skeptical. Snarky, actually.

I hope that this time the voices of high school students will carry from Florida to Washington, D.C. and across the nation. I hope they finally shame Congress into action.

And I hope you join them. Because many of my former colleagues are betting that you’ll be drowned out. That you’ll turn this page, click another link, become distracted by the latest presidential tweet.

Your voice won’t make a difference everywhere. There are places where pro-gun gerrymandering might as well have shaped congressional districts in the shape of an AR-15 assault rifle. So work on the state level to elect officials who will draw better districts  after the 2020 census — districts where you might actually see bumper stickers that say “I Remember Parkland & I Vote.”

Just as important, understand that states are filling the policy vacuum created by a currently obstinate Congress and spend time and money on those local races as well. Or, you can keep doing what you’ve been doing: Recycle your rage at the deaths of our children. Elect the same people, watch the same press conferences, feel the same shock, sadness, anger. And, before long, scratch your heads trying to remember what ever happened at Parkland.

Steve Israel’s next novel “Big Guns” may be ordered at repsteveisrael.com or directly from your local bookstore.

Smoke-filled Rooms and Unvarnished Opinions

Photo by Andreas Øverland

The smoking of cigars may be a vice, but it has this virtue: you hear the unvarnished opinions of people in cigar bars, as I did recently.

I frequently slip into Matador Cigars, a cigar establishment in Roslyn. It’s as far from Capitol Hill in attire and accoutrements as I can get. Usually I wear jeans, a ratty shirt and a baseball cap; find a comfortable leather chair, and write. Often I go with my friend, George Tsunis, a prominent national supporter of Democrats.

On the eve of the last government shutdown, the place was packed and Fox News was on the overhead televisions. Then I heard it:

“Let ’em shut down the government!”

“What does immigration have to do with a budget?”

A ringing chorus of expletives directed at various elected officials followed.

Now, those guys — there were no women, thank goodness, given one individual’s anatomical references about one particular female Democrat — and I were there to enjoy a cigar, so I kept quiet. I could have asked what Planned Parenthood had to do with the budget when the Republicans tried shutting down the government, or suggested that if Democratic votes were needed to pass it, then there had to be some compromises. Or asked why Democrats are to blame for a shutdown when President Trump tweeted he wanted one and Republicans have a majority in both the House and Senate.

But, no. I get the frustration. There was a time when Republicans and Democrats actually governed by compromise. When they fought but functioned. When bipartisan was an attribute, not an attack ad in a nasty primary from far left or far right.

What happened? Gerrymandering drew congressional districts to the extreme poles of the electorate, pulling apart compromise. The media — led by an explicit Fox News strategy to be an ideological amplifier of the right — became more echo chamber than news provider. Politicians found gain in tearing down the institutions any democracy relies on to govern.

The Republican Party decided, in 1995, that a shutdown of the federal government to achieve an ideological objective was appropriate. And repeated that strategy in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2016. It was a brilliant strategy. If government can be shut down, why do we need it? Why pay taxes?

That history is indisputably true, but, that day, completely irrelevant to my fellow cigar smokers at Matador Cigars. They just want government to work capably. I don’t think most of them like the idea of uniformed federal agents rounding up and deporting ] children whose parents brought them here when they were infants, who speak perfect English, pay taxes and work damned hard in the only country they’ve ever known.

They want common sense. They want compromise. They want a decent cigar without watching their government falling apart around them.

Steve Israel’s next novel, Big Guns, can be pre-ordered at repsteveisrael.com.

Turning The Page on 2017

I left Congress to write books, but while there I spent as much time as possible reading.

Most of what I needed to know as a national leader I learned not from newspapers or television, but from books. 

I asked some local leaders about what books they are reading for insight, knowledge and plain old entertainment in the new year. The answers were as varied as the people I questioned.

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas: The Boys in the Boat – Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. It’s a true story about the resilience of the human spirit.

Nelson DeMille, bestselling author: I’m reading two advance reading copies. The first is Chicago, a novel by Broadway playwright David Mamet. The other is Big Guns, a political parody by a guy named Steve Israel.

Brookville Mayor Dan Serota: Pat Buchanan’s The Greatest Comeback, the story of Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign. I like the story of an underdog and at that time, Nixon was an underdog.

Long Island University President Kimberly Cline: Nelson DeMille’s The Cuban Affair. He has been one of my favorite authors for over 20 years. The plots are complex, with unexpected twists.

Laurie Segal Scheinman, owner of wit & whim in Port Washington: Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, and just finished re-reading Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage. Both reads are to ground me as to what’s important.

SterlingRisk Insurance CEO David Sterling: How Language Began by Daniel Everett, because understanding how we began to speak will aid understanding how to communicate better.

Chartwell Hotels CEO George Tsunis: The Emperor’s Handbook by Marcus Aurelius, which is a translation of meditations, because it speaks to a more high-minded time of national leaders.

North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth: I just completed Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. This was our North Hempstead’s Project Independence Book Club selection for this month.

New York State Assemb. Chuck Lavine: I’m reading two books: Shattered by Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen and A Single Spy by William Christie. I also recommend anything by Alan Furst.

Old Brookville Mayor Bernie Ryba: I would like to make time to read Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit by Chris Matthews. Besides his ability to inspire, I feel he accomplished so much in a relatively short period of time.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky: FDR: A Political Life. I like reading about real leadership in Washington since I see so little of it today.

Huntington Councilman Mark Cuthbertson: The Political Brain by Drew Westen. It explores something I think many politicians take for granted, which is the role that emotions play in voter decision-making.

Stanley M. Bergman, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Henry Schein, Inc.:
I like to use this time to catch up on publications such as the Economist and Foreign Policy Magazine, as well as bipartisan opinion pieces from various internet sites and publications. In this world of information overload, it’s increasingly challenging to keep current, so I welcome some time to catch up.

Chintu Patel, Co-CEO, Co-Chairman, and Co-Founder of Amneal Pharmaceuticals: I’m Reading new tax bill and its impact going forward personally and business. Also introspection of 2017 and learning of it going in to 2018.  

Christopher Hahn, Host of The Christopher Hahn Show on LI News Radio: FiveThirtyEight.com.  If you dig deep enough into the data you can usually figure out where things are headed. Nate Silver still offers the best unbiased statistical analysis on what’s going on in politics and sports.   

Bert Brodsky, Founder and Chairman of Sandata Technologies: The last book I read was Boys in the Bronx and I was disappointed I wasn’t in it.

Marc Beige, CEO of Rubies Costume Company: After the Fall by Mary Clark Great book about the Fall of the twin towers and the years that followed it. This book adds new information and perspectives to an watershed event that is a defining moment in our history.

And my list? Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Ulysses Grant, which portrays the essential human qualities of a complex and largely misunderstood historic figure.

Steve Israel’s next novel, Big Guns, can be pre-ordered at repsteveisrael.com.

Thanks And No Thanks This Holiday Season

It’s that time of year when sappy columnists remind us what we should be thankful for.

Ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Israel.

I’m no fan of those columns. I view the world as a messy, volatile, challenging and unpredictable place. But under the muck, there are countless jewels to be thankful for.

My most meaningful holiday? I was returning home from a visit to Afghanistan aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in the middle of the Persian Gulf. I boarded around Thanksgiving and dined with the carrier’s commander, Ron Horton, who, I recall, was from Southold. I asked him about the crew’s morale.

“These people are professionals,” he said. “They’re doing their job. They don’t ask for much, but they do need to know that they have support back home.”

Looking around that room gave me the deepest sense of thanks I’d had since my children were born. The crew came from every conceivable background. What they had in common was not being with their families on Thanksgiving and being proud to protect those families.

Now we enter another holiday season, where brave men and women sit on ships and fly planes and huddle in secret places far from home. They’re the 1 percent that defends the rest of us.

There are different ways to thank them. Stickers that say, “Support Our Troops” are nice, but we can do better. Saying “thank you for your service” is appreciated, but requires little effort. They truly don’t receive the thanks they deserve.

We want them to do more while paying lower taxes to support them. We want them to fight our battles but many support President Trump’s State Department budget cuts for diplomacy that might prevent those battles. We’ve become disengaged from understanding the battles as news analysis morphs into opinion.

This holiday season, many will bask in the warmth of home fireplaces, surrounded by loved ones. I think of another fireplace, lit in the White House on Dec. 9, 1941. Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR gave a fireside chat preparing Americans for a difficult war. Today, that speech might be considered political malpractice:

“I was about to add that ahead there lies sacrifice for all of us,” he said. “But it is not correct to use that word. The United States does not consider it a sacrifice to do all one can, to give one’s best to our nation, when the nation is fighting for its existence and its future life.

“It is not a sacrifice for any man, old or young, to be in the Army or the Navy of the United States,” he continued. “Rather it is a privilege. It is not a sacrifice for the industrialist or the wage earner, the farmer or the shopkeeper, the trainmen or the doctor, to pay more taxes, to buy more bonds, to forego extra profits, to work longer or harder at the task for which he is best fitted. Rather it is a privilege. It is not a sacrifice to do without many things to which we are accustomed if the national defense calls for doing without it.”

This holiday season, check on a military family. Contribute to a veteran’s organization. Visit the Northport Veterans Hospital. If you’re a builder, donate time and resources to renovate an American Legion or VFW Post.

Don’t just say “thank you.” Act on it.

Time, Once Again, To Get To Work

Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong working at an equipment storage area on the lunar module.

Hurricanes unprecedented in their force tearing up the South. 

Ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Israel.

Unrelenting wildfires eating up Northern California.

Yet another gun massacre, this time in Nevada with a death toll topping the last one, and the one before that.

Our populace has seemingly more bitterly divided than ever before between pockets of deep reds and staunch blues.

For many, this is a dark time. Some fear this is the darkest time we have ever faced.

I’ve always said I wasn’t the smartest member of Congress, but I do believe I am the biggest student of history. And if history has proven anything, it’s that darkness can breed brilliance and resilience.

Darkness is when we get to work.

Want proof? Just look at Route 110, a blaze of pavement stretching from Huntington to Babylon, cutting a swath in Long Island’s grand commercial canyon.

Before World War II, the Route 110 corridor was mostly potato fields and pumpkin farms. And in the shock of the Pearl Harbor attack, a unique threat to our way of life, some Americans feared that this would be the darkest time we would ever experience.

But that generation of Americans turned farmland into factories and became the backbone of America’s middle class, the defenders of liberty around the world. They transformed those potato fields and pumpkin farms into the defense capital of America, with industrial plants, engineering companies, an airport and universities.

That generation crossed oceans, stormed beaches, liberated concentration camps, freed Europe, raced to the Pacific and won the war.

And when the war was over, they came back to a new job, that of turning Long Island into America’s greatest suburb.

And then we faced a new threat, symbolized by the staccato beeping of Sputnik overhead. Many Americans feared that this would be the darkest time we have ever had.

I’m reminded of the famous words by President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in 1962.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

We were emboldened by the challenge. We looked across the black expanse of space and said, “We can go there, too.”

NASA did not land a man on moon, Long Islanders and the Long Island aerospace industry landed a man on the moon. Leaders like Leroy Grumman landed man on the moon, and we transformed Long Island from the defense capital of America to the aerospace capitol of America.

Kennedy’s words spurred a nation into action. They encouraged Americans to band together to do what was thought to be impossible.

Then, as now, the lesson is unchanged. We must not succumb to the darkness, but reach out to one another and get to work.

That’s what Long Islanders do.

Democracy on Wry, Hold The Mayo

Every civilization has iconic places where leaders converge and history turns. Yalta, where FDR, Churchill and Stalin met. Reykjavik, where Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to major arms control. Appomattox, where Grant and Lee ended the Civil War.

And Long Island diners. 

Ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Israel.

In nearly 25 years of elected life, every consequential political meeting I’ve ever had was in a local diner. Meetings to discuss politics, to delve into issues, to avoid conflict.

In 2000, I was wrestling with a decision to run for Congress. I was a Huntington Town Councilman at the time and it looked like a crowded congressional primary field. One of my potential opponents called me for a “secret meeting” at a local diner. We arrived separately on a cold, drizzly day. The diner was packed with constituents, business leaders, and waiters and waitresses adroitly juggling massive platters of deluxe burgers, towering sandwiches and vats of Cobb salads.

Not a good place for a secret summit.

He suggested that we return to the parking lot, and meet in my car. We sat for an hour. The combination of our political hot air and the chill outside produced foggy windows and some curious stares.

It was, well, uncomfortable.

But we resolved our differences and I went on to run. I celebrated by walking into the diner and ordering a turkey club sandwich. To go.

After Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin’s election to Congress, he suggested that Democrats weren’t sufficiently supportive of Israel. Proud of my own outspoken leadership and perfect record on US-Israel relations, I criticized his comments.

We decided to resolve our spat at what was called the Manichevitz Summit – at a diner. In an act of supreme bipartisanship, we split the bill.

When my campaign needed television commercials, I insisted that we shoot them in diners. In a district as diverse as Whitestone and Smithtown, the one thing everybody could recognize was a diner.

More important, diners were the one place in my sprawling district that I’d hear what my constituents really thought.

There’s something about a deluxe hamburger platter that fuels people’s willingness to render opinions. I didn’t need a poll to tell me voters’ moods. Just a table at any diner.

In most cases, I’d walk into a diner to friendly waves. Often, someone would approach my table and say: “Mr. Israel, I hate to interrupt your meal, but…” Then they’d help themselves to a seat, and in one case, my fries.

Long Island diners are citadels of free speech, priceless democracy and inexpensive meals. They are places where income inequality is leveled. You can be a CEO or union plumber, but you know the best value is in that shiny encyclopedic menu that can sprain your wrist when lifted.

You may be reading this at a diner. If you are, do me a favor. Give your waiter or waitress a nice tip. They’re the hardest workers I know. And put up with far more than this Congressman did.

Israel: Life After Congress? Better Pizza

The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. (Photo by DAVID ILIFF)

Growing up in Levittown, I had three dreams: play for the Mets, write novels and be a congressman. Two out of three ain’t bad. 

Ex-U.S. Rep. Steve Israel.

I’m now writing satirical novels on politics (shameless plug: “The Global War on Morris” was published in 2015 and “Big Guns” will be released next April). I also had the extraordinary honor of representing Long Island in Congress for 16 years.

Since leaving, I spend time writing, chairing the Global Institute at LIU and appearing on CNN, among other things. Almost everywhere I go, I’m asked: “Do you miss Washington?”

Here’s what I don’t miss:

– Sitting on the tarmac at Reagan National Airport as the pilot announces a groundstop at LaGuardia, resulting in long delays.

– Rush hour traffic at LaGuardia when I finally land.

– Partisan bickering by members of Congress who believe that their views are absolute moral truths.

-Hypocrisy by members of Congress who condemn an action by one party only to defend the same action by the other. Example: the same Republicans who frothed at President Obama’s vacation now fawn on President Trump’s.

– Sitting in a cubicle for hours at a time making fundraising calls and eating soggy egg rolls at PAC cocktail parties.

– Angry calls from specific areas of the country I never represented. During the frenzy on Obamacare, I was tempted to record this message: “Thank you for calling Congressman Israel’s office. To call me a socialist, press 1. To threaten my life, press 2. For all other calls press 3. To repeat this message in Spanish…” 

Here’s what I do miss:

– Helping veterans. My proudest congressional achievement was securing nearly $9 million dollars in retroactive payment for our community’s veterans. I miss delivering those checks and looking into their eyes as they told me their faith in government was restored.

– The quiet collegiality in Congress that you don’t hear about. There’s an exterior balcony right off the House Floor where Democrats and Republicans with different views speak civilly and respectfully about their lives. Congress often resembles an ocean storm: frothy and turbulent on the surface, but much more peaceful the deeper you go.

– The magnificent history of the Capitol. I never pretended to be the smartest member of Congress – though if you listened to some of my colleagues, you’d know that the competition wasn’t that stiff – but I considered myself it’s most passionate student of history. I was often asked to lead VIP tours of the Capitol. My favorite included four players for my beloved Mets, who were in town against the Nationals. I’ve been in the Oval Office with presidents, I’ve met kings, queens and movie stars. But walking around the Capitol with Major League Baseball players was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

– Finally, I’ll miss visiting our troops in dangerous places around the world. In 16 years in Congress I visited Iraq and Afghanistan 13 times. I profoundly believed that if I’d vote to send Americans into dangerous places, I’d better be willing to check on them in those same places.

At the end of long weeks in Washington, I loved coming home to Long Island for my family, the pizza (pizza isn’t pizza in DC) and the people. Now I’m home for good, but that doesn’t mean that politics has completely escaped me.

Believe it or not, the best advice that I received as I contemplated leaving Congress was from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. I don’t agree with Newt on many issues – if any – but we became friendly over the years, bound mostly as fellow writers.

He told me: “The mistake that guys like you and me often make is thinking that you have to be elected in order to make a difference. The fact is that relieved of the burdens of office, you can make an even bigger difference.”

Now, I no longer need to leave Long Island every week to continue making a difference on the issues that I care so deeply about. Now, I can debate issues in the world’s most deliberative democracy: the Long Island diner.

Israel chairs the Global Institute at LIU. His next book, “Big Guns,” will be published in April and can be ordered at www.repsteveisrael.com.