Sitting at lunch at a Chinese buffet in Huntington, N.Y., GW alumnus Steve Israel was in a heated discussion with a friend. It was May of 2000, Israel was a town councilman, his friend was the town supervisor and both wanted to be the next executive of Long Island’s Suffolk County.
Amid the argument over who would run for the office, Israel got up to make a phone call when suddenly, he saw something come across the news ticker on a nearby television. Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York and a candidate for U.S. Senate, had cancer and was dropping out of the race. Rick Lazio, the congressman in Israel’s district, would replace him and run against Hillary Clinton.
With the political ambition typical of a GW student, Israel immediately recognized the open seat in the House of Representatives.
“Without missing a step,” Israel said, “I turned around, walked back to the table and said, ‘Frank, congratulations on your county executive candidacy. I’m running for Congress.'”
Six months later, Israel had gone from county executive hopeful to member of Congress, taking his seat with the lowest percentage of the popular vote of any House winner that year. The Democrat is now one of 10 GW alumni in the House, winning his third term with a bit more ease earlier this month, with 66 percent of the vote. But his congressional aspirations go back long before his Chinese food lunch.
“When I was in sixth grade, I was thinking about running for Congress,” Israel, 46, told The Hatchet in an interview at his Capitol Hill office last month.
Like many students, Israel spent a lot of time away from Foggy Bottom while at GW, working as a legislative aide in Congress. He graduated in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree.
“(GW is) not a traditional campus, but that’s what drew me to it. I just loved being where the action is,” Israel said. “I got a good education there, but I also worked on the Hill, so I wasn’t as deeply involved in campus life.”
After graduation, Israel spent 17 years working in business and local politics on Long Island. Finally back on the Hill in 2001, Israel acted like a congressman who had waited a long time for his seat, passing more legislation than any other freshman Democrat in his first term.. He was named Rookie of the Year by Newsday, a Long Island newspaper that also called him a “national rising star.”
But as a conservative Democrat, Israel has drawn criticism from both inside and outside his party. He has supported President Bush on major initiatives such as the 2001 tax cuts and more recently, the authorization to use force in Iraq. Newsday’s editorial page wrote in 2002 that Israel could use “a bit more backbone,” while his opponent in the 2004 race, Richard Hoffmann, called Israel’s voting record inconsistent.
Israel, however, said his record is consistent with the interests of his constituents, most of which are moderate Democrats or Republicans.
“I get beat up by my own party for being independent and voting with Republicans when I think they’re right. I get beat up by Republicans in my district who believe that I’m not conservative enough,” he said. “For most of the people that I represent, the center is where they are.”
He added, “I like not having my vote taken for granted. I like when both sides understand that they can’t just list me as an automatic yes or an automatic no.”
Jack Pratt, Israel’s chief of staff, said the congressman’s centrist position often makes for difficult votes.
“These are your buddies, the guys you hang out with, the members of your party,” Pratt said. “So when you break ranks, you’re breaking ranks with your buddies, so personally it’s actually tough to do that.”
Still, Israel has emerged as a leading House Democrat, being named assistant whip in his second term. In July, he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Helped by his easy smile and public speaking prowess, Israel has also been the subject of considerable media attention in his home region.
“He’s a smart guy,” Pratt said. “He’s pretty quick. He’s always thinking about issues and figuring out new angles, so I think he’s good at impressing people who write articles.”
Another factor in Israel’s ability to get on the airwaves has been the success of his fundraising operation, which raised more than $1.5 million for the 2004 election. While emphasizing that he hates asking people for money “as a congressman and as a human being,” he learned almost immediately how crucial it was to his political survival.
At freshman orientation shortly after the 2000 election, Israel said, “Dick Gephardt came in and said (to the group), ‘Congratulations on your election to the United States Congress last week. How much have you raised since then?’ Everybody kind of looked at each other and smiled. And he said, ‘Sadly, it’s not funny. If you’re not raising money every week, you’re not coming back here.'”
As a result, Israel said he often worked seven days a week during his first term. But now that he has money and a more secure seat, he has been able to spend a bit less time at public events and more time with his family. He married a Huntington town council member, Marlene Budd, in 2003.
“It always works out where when I do have time off, she’s got to go to the chamber of commerce or a town board meeting,” said Israel, who also has two daughters. “It’s difficult for two elected officials to share a marriage.”
Nevertheless, Israel seems poised to remain in public office for some time.
“I want to be here for a while,” Israel said. “It would be easy for me to just say, ‘Ah, I’ll go out and make a lot of money. I’ve done my four years in Congress,’ go out and be a lobbyist. But I still have some fights left.”