DCCC Chairman Ponders His Future — With No Clear Seat at Leadership Table
Rep. Steve Israel doesn’t want another tour of duty as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Let me think about it,” the New York Democrat told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview, feigning indecision for just an instant before delivering the punch line. “No! No. No. No.”
He exhaled with a long, loud laugh, and then grew serious.
“I very much want to continue being in leadership,” he said. “But three terms is a bad idea for our caucus. You need fresh blood.”
Israel has registered these sentiments with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., but conversations have pretty much ended there for the time being. After all, Israel said, he has a majority to try and win back in November before he can stop and think about what might come next for him.
But once the dust settles from Election Day, Israel will be left at a career crossroads. He wants a seat at a leadership table without an empty chair: The “Big Five” slate of caucus chairman, vice chairman, whip, leader and assistant leader is likely to remain static in the 114th Congress.
Pelosi could use her influence to keep Israel relevant through the next few years by securing him a special position, but sources tell CQ Roll Call she could face backlash from members growing uneasy about her pattern of playing favorites.
Ultimately, it might be Israel’s choice: taking on another grueling two years of activity at the DCCC through what might be a better cycle in a presidential election year, or return to being a member of the rank and file.
While he insists he isn’t kept awake at night obsessing over the if-then’s, he must know that his short-term political future is drawing a blank — and that he could become a cautionary tale for what happens to ambitious members of the House Democratic Caucus who suddenly find themselves with little room to grow.
Getting the Job
Though most politicians in Israel’s position would at this stage be fighting to make their case to stay at the top, the 55-year-old lawmaker won’t get into the game of self-promotion.
He pinpointed the moment when his political fortunes changed — when he was plucked from relative obscurity in 2008 to head up the DCCC recruitment program — but had little to say about why he might have been singled out. He remembered the thrill of being named to the Appropriations Committee in 2006, but wouldn’t explain why Pelosi gave him the assignment.
“You’ll have to ask them,” Israel said repeatedly during the course of a 40 minute sit-down interview.
CQ Roll Call did, and Pelosi lauded the New Yorker with praise in an email, saying he “commands the respect of his colleagues for his strong leadership and direct guidance” on how to win.
Israel did offer up an anecdote: Former DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois once called Israel a “rock star” in an internal memo.
What did Emanuel mean? “You’d have to ask him,” Israel replied with a smile.
Eventually, he allowed that leadership took notice of him for his ability to be a team player, roll up his sleeves and “just do what I was asked.” He’s a live wire with insatiable energy, even when fighting the waning symptoms of pneumonia, as he was when he sat down with CQ Roll Call.
He said he was picked to lead the DCCC in 2010 in part because he hails from a swing district.
New York’s 3rd, his territory after redistricting, stretches from an upper-middle-class section of Queens into more affluent parts of Long Island that provided the setting for the classic novel “The Great Gatsby.” (Israel, by the way, has a bookshelf in his Congressional office dedicated to the literature that’s come out of his pocket of the state.)
His first election in 2000 saw him winning with only 48 percent of the vote, and he’s still the only member of House Democratic leadership who has had to fight for his seat back home.
He wears it as a badge of honor.
“It gives me a perspective on what’s necessary to win elections where we have to win them,” Israel said, holding court in his office in Rayburn instead of at the nearby DCCC headquarters on a recent Wednesday afternoon. “When I give advice to candidates, it’s not giving advice from a, you know, a 30,000-foot level. It’s giving advice as one of them.”
Once a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, Israel helped recruit and elect a huge freshman class in 2012, nearly 50 in all. Collectively they’re more moderate than the average member, and many of them have actually voted with House Republicans on bills targeting Obamacare — causing headaches for Democratic leaders who yearn for party unity and a more progressive presence in the caucus.
But Israel, who has voted for at least one of the GOP bills excoriated by other Democrats, is unapologetic about the new Democratic Caucus he has helped create, calling those recruits “restless.”
“One out of 5 children in America is born in poverty. We’re not going to affect those numbers unless we’re in the majority, and we’re not gonna get in the majority unless we win elections, and we’re not gonna win elections unless we’re competing in more moderate districts. It’s that simple,” he said.
Israel touted the landmark diversity of the 113th Congress’ freshmen — proclaiming, “I love that!” — but the remarks come as he’s fending off criticisms that he’s not being responsive to the concerns of the Congressional Black Caucus. Early in his tenure, he suggested that Democrats didn’t need the CBC to win back the House, and he had to immediately launch an apology tour that included promises to include more African-Americans in strategy sessions and revamp the dues structure to accommodate a wider diversity of candidates.
“I think it’s so vitally important that we understand that we’re just one team, we’re one caucus,” Israel said of the 2011 episode he described as a “misunderstanding” with the CBC.
“It’s very easy, you know, on my side, on all sides, for people to kind of misunderstand, to not communicate effectively,” he said. “[T]hat’s why I’ve put a premium on working with them to ensure that the DCCC has diversity.”
Israel boasted that the DCCC, under his leadership, hired its very first diversity officer. And he recently named a black woman, Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, to head up the DCCC’s Red to Blue program for open and Republican-held districts.
But CBC Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, told CQ Roll Call she wasn’t impressed.
“He does not have a good relationship with us,” Fudge said. “I can only speak for myself: I would not be supportive of him maintaining a leadership position. I don’t believe he’s representative of the entire caucus.”
But another CBC member, Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, described Israel as a good listener. Edwards wouldn’t address Fudge’s dissatisfaction, but said that the DCCC should always be working to increase diversity within the ranks.
“The job of the CBC is to keep pushing on that agenda. I think it’s entirely appropriate,” Edwards said in a phone interview. “I feel that the chairman has been responsive, but is there more work we need to do within the DCCC? Absolutely there is.”
Edwards, who ousted a senior member of the CBC in a primary to win her seat in 2008, has worked with Israel in several capacities at the DCCC. She says she likes his straight-shooter sensibility.
“He has a very direct and very pragmatic communication style, so I had to get used to that,” she said. “But what I’ve found is, I really like it, because he’s really clear about what the marching orders are, when you need to touch base . . . I think sometimes in the political world people are not used to people being very direct.”
Finding His Role
Israel acknowledged that his policy expertise and legislative portfolio have collected some dust during his four years as DCCC chairman, but waxed poetic about an issue that satisfied his curiosity as a “military history buff.” (He wrote the book “Charge!: History’s Greatest Military Speeches” in 2007.)
“I wanted to be the guy in Congress who worked with Ike Skelton on professional military education,” Israel said, his eyes lighting up at the memory of his former colleague, who died in 2013. “You don’t get many headlines on the reform of professional military education, but I just loved it, and I spent a year and a half on that issue.”
As DCCC chairman, Israel helped shepherd through Congress a $10 million investment for post-traumatic stress disorder research within the Defense Department, a significant feat he says he probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off as simply “Steve Israel from New York’s 2nd Congressional District.”
Israel’s immediate hurdle isn’t appealing to colleagues for an elected leadership slot — at least not now. It’s simply the matter of finding a place to land.
Caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley of New York and Chairman Xavier Becerra of California both have two years left before running up against the two-term limit imposed on their positions, and they’re considered locks for re-election. Assistant Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Pelosi, all in their early 70s, are also expected to return in the next Congress and reclaim their seats.
This leaves few options for Israel if he wants to stay relevant and visible. Pelosi could find him a ranking membership somewhere, and elevate that position to one with more responsibilities and exposure. A similar accommodation was made for Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who was DCCC chairman for two consecutive cycles before he was named ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee in 2010. He’s still considered a member of the leadership team. But there’s no opening on the horizon for Israel that is at all comparable to the Budget role.
Van Hollen was named assistant to the speaker in 2008 so he could delve into policy matters while he serving out his second term at the DCCC, an arrangement Pelosi was happy to accommodate. In 2006, Becerra was appointed assistant to the speaker to give him a head start on the leadership track. Pelosi made those moves to empower Democrats in whom she saw potential, and possibly to groom them for the future.
Sources close to Pelosi say that she puts Israel in the category of someone whose rise she wants to facilitate, but this time around it might be tricky. The assistant to the leader position no longer exists, having been reconfigured as an elected slot specifically for Clyburn in 2010, when it looked like he was going to challenge Hoyer for whip. Pelosi has certain leeway to shift things, but she also has to be aware of the optics of making special arrangements for those she has anointed to her inner circle.
Israel could return to the powerful Appropriations Committee, from which he took a leave of absence to run the DCCC. There also will be an opening for a co-chairman slot on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which would be a plum assignment with influence, though it’s not one that has given current Co-Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut any additional influence on the national stage.
Ultimately, much depends on what happens in November, particularly how many Democratic seats are lost or gained and whether Pelosi, Hoyer or Clyburn surprise colleagues with announcements about their political futures that would set the gears in motion for a major overhaul of the leadership structure.
Israel insisted he didn’t even think he’d make it this far. In fact, it wasn’t until he won his first re-election in 2002 that he finally decided to take his clothing out of boxes and invest in a set of dresser drawers for his apartment.
“I didn’t want to get too comfortable here,” he explained. “My expectation was that it would be very hard to get re-elected. Never in a zillion years would I have ever imagined I’d be here.”
Correction 1:18 p.m., May 8
An earlier version of this post misstated Van Hollen’s 2008 position. He was assistant to the speaker.