Take Five: Retiring Rep. Steve Israel

New York Democrat says election is reflection of middle-class anxieties

New York Rep. Steve Israel, seen here at the Democratic National Convention in July, says Democrats must learn to tap into the anxieties of middle-class voters constructively. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
New York Rep. Steve Israel, seen here at the Democratic National Convention in July, says Democrats must learn to tap into the anxieties of middle-class voters constructively. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted November 16, 2016 at 5:00am

Rep. Steve Israel announced his retirement in January 2015 at the start of his eighth term in Congress. The New York Democrat is chairman of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He reflected on this year’s election results.

Q: What’s one thing about your district that people might not know?

A: Long Island diners. You cannot find a decent diner once you leave Long Island. So I’m really looking forward to spending more time in Long Island diners. Everything I know about politics, everything I know about human nature, I know from having lunch with my constituents at our diners. In fact, the last time I went to a diner on Long Island before the election, the waitress came up to me and in that rather identifiable Long Island accent said, “Mr. Israel, I know I’m going to disappoint you but I’m voting for Donald Trump.” And when the waitress at the diner told me she was voting for Donald Trump, I had a sense that we had some challenges ahead.

[Steve Israel Will Not Seek Re-Election in 2016]

Q: What’s your take on the outcome of this election?

A: We are witnessing a historic convergence of anxieties on middle-class voters, like that waitress at the diner. The economy is changing radically before their very eyes. To be in the middle class now, is to be in the economic minority in America. They’ve lost faith in institutions across the board — not just government, but sports and religion and Wall Street. They feel a sense of threat from ISIS abroad and from a shooter at the movie theater at home. And they feel like democracy has just sold them out. You put that all together and you have historic anxieties.

We Democrats have to learn how to tap into those anxieties constructively or else Republicans will continue to do it destructively. I’m going to spend some of my new life working on that issue.

Q: What’s your proudest accomplishment is Congress?

A: When I chaired the DCCC, I helped elect the most diverse caucus in the history of parliamentary democracy. We elected our first minority-majority caucus, so I’m very proud of that in Washington. And at home, I’m most proud of what we’ve done for veterans. We’ve secured nearly $9 million in back pay for the veterans I represent. Nothing makes me happier than that.

Israel when he was first running for Congress in Sept. 2000. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Israel when he was first running for Congress in Sept. 2000. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Q: What event shaped your time here?

A: 9/11. I’d only been a congressman for nine months and I was sitting in the office when I learned of the attacks. I spent the next four days just making condolence calls to constituents in my district. And I’ve been to more funerals than I ever thought was possible. That really shaped my approach in Congress in two areas.

One is, I’ve always been right-of-center on national security issues and I think being a congressman in a district that suffered hundreds of deaths certainly helped explain my feelings on national security matters. But also, reaching out to those families and providing them with services, helped shaped my approach back home, which is to be a provider of constituent services. Stay away from explaining the federal highway bill when there’s a pot hole and just grab a shovel and some asphalt and pave the pothole.

[Steve Israel Assembling Writer’s Caucus]

Q: You’re a writer, so do your post-retirement plans involve writing?

A: It’s an important part of my plan. I loved writing my first novel and I’m almost finished with my second novel. For a significant period of time, I was a full-time congressman and part-time novelist. Now I want to become more of a full-time novelist. The second book is due to Simon & Schuster at the end of the year.