After serving Long Island for more than 20 years, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) has said he will be stepping down in November to pursue other interests and give someone else a chance at leading the 3rd District, and his announcement last week has led to an even broader political conversation facing the greater North Shore of Long Island.
A North Shore native, Israel held his first leadership position as president of his high school class in Levittown. Years later, he was sworn in as a councilman on the Huntington Town Board in 1993, when he said he strived to bring stability to a then conflicted and divided government.
Israel said the lessons he learned at the town level never left him as he moved on to the national political stage.
“I focused on putting partisanship aside [in Huntington] and rebuilding the town’s finances,” he said. “With [Supervisor Frank] Petrone, together we brought to the town the highest bond rating on Long Island and ending political bickering.”
Petrone (D) echoed the sentiment. “We forged ahead because we supported each other,” Petrone said in an interview. Petrone came into office as a Republican but with Israel’s support he eventually switched parties.
“We both had a commitment to work together for the benefit of the residents,” he said.
Israel took that mind-set of minimizing political bickering all the way to Washington, D.C. There, Israel created the Congressional Center Aisle Caucus to promote civility, compromise and change the divisive partisan atmosphere in the nation’s capital. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he said he told all candidates he worked with that “if they wanted any hope, they needed to think not as a Congress person, but as a local councilperson.”
He said serving in Huntington was all about problem solving, and there is currently a “huge thirst” for the same in the U.S. Congress.
“I never would have been in Congress without serving in Huntington.”
Israel said he was proud that after leaving Huntington, he was able to continue to build on town projects while serving in Washington and taking a Huntington problem and developing it into a national solution.
For example, in his work with the Housing Our Heroes Act, Israel collaborated with Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) to use the legislator’s bill crafted to house homeless veterans and turn it into a national piece of legislation that provided housing for veterans.
“He was of great assistance to me on my landmark ‘Housing Our Homeless Heroes Act,’ and it was an honor to work with him on his innovative ‘Housing Our Heroes Act’ to end veterans homelessness,” Stern said in an email.
Before the Housing Our Heroes Act, Israel worked with U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) to help put veterans back to work with the Hire More Heroes Act, signed by President Barack Obama (D) in 2014. The law created an incentive for small businesses to hire more veterans who have health care coverage provided by federal departments.
“When we’ve worked together, we found it enhances and multiplies our success,” Zeldin said in a phone interview.
Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said Israel and his staff were an invaluable resource to help pass legislation like the Sunlight Law, which was signed into law in April and ensures that veterans and their families will directly benefit from charitable donations and penalize any person who impersonates a decorated veteran.
“He has represented us well and has really supported his Long Island constituents,” Spencer said in a phone interview.
Looking ahead, Israel said his advice to his colleagues still in Congress is to spend little time in Washington as well.
“The trappings of power in Washington can trap you,” Israel said. “I pride myself on never spending a weekend in that place. Go to a diner, and at pizza places in your district. That is where you will learn the most.”
Huntington Councilwoman Susan Berland (D) volunteered for Israel’s congressional campaign in 2000 and said she became good friends with him through that time.
She later went on to win Israel’s seat in Huntington once he left for Washington.
“He taught me it was important not to loose sight of solving one problem at a time,” she said in a phone interview.
She also took over Israel’s role on the Keep Huntington Beautiful campaign that sponsors annual community clean-up programs and gives Huntington residents a chance to participate in keeping their town clean.
The departures of both Israel and Zeldin’s predecessor, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Bishop, have left room for fresher faces from Long Island to make their mark in Washington, but those who follow the race said it could lead to a shift in power for North Shore representatives.
Jeffery Segal, a political science professor at Stony Brook University, said Israel will be leaving a powerful position and could have even expanded his reach if he stayed.
“Congressman Israel has been the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee,” Segal said in an email. “That makes him extremely influential in terms of securing support for projects he favors. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, is 75 years old. Steny Hoyer, who as minority whip is second in leadership, is 76 years old. Congressman Israel is only 57 years old. Israel possibly could have become one of the Democratic leaders and possibly even Speaker.”
Since Israel’s announcement last week, many lawmakers have come out to say they will consider running for the soon to be vacant seat. Berland, Spencer and Stern are among the many who have said they may throw their hat into the race.
Assemblyman Chad A. Lupinacci (R-Huntington Station) has already formed a campaign committee for his possible run.
“There are serious issues facing our country and I think that my elected experience at the state and local level will prove invaluable in helping to get the country headed in the right direction,” Lupinacci said in a statement.