Field Marshal: Steve Israel and the Battle for Congress

Steve Isareal Congressional photo
Steve Isareal Congressional photo
Photo courtesy House of Representatives

Field Marshal: Steve Israel and the Battle for Congress

Now in his second term as head of the DCCC, Israel is a bit more guarded.
May 24, 2014

"I’VE LEARNED NOT to prophesize,” says Steve Israel during his remarks at the National Press Club to the capacity crowd of journalists and politicos, who had turned out on the early April morning to hear him do just that. 

“When the Republicans shut down the federal government … the pundits said, ‘You’re going to win 50 seats.’ Three weeks later when the Obamacare website rolled out, the same pundits—the same ones— were saying, ‘You’re going to lose 50 seats!’ ” Israel flashes a serious smile. “So if three weeks can make a difference, who knows what eight months will bring? 

These days, Israel often offers some permutation of this observation. He may not have oracular powers—at least not of the divine variety—but Israel does have a job that requires him to focus obsessively on the future—upon Nov. 4, 2014, to be exact: the next day in history Democrats will have a chance to retake the House of Representatives. And it seems everyone in Washington, D.C., wants to know what Israel sees in his crystal ball—magic or otherwise. 

It has already been debated ad nauseum this year within the Beltway whether Israel’s reluctance this cycle to make bolder predictions—or any prediction at all—is a not so tacit admission of just how difficult a battle he is facing this cycle as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—in a midterm election with a president at the head of the party whose approval rating is nearly the lowest it has been over his five-plus years in office. 

Two years ago, in his first term as head of the DCCC, Israel seemed to speak less guardedly of the Democrats’ odds, baits one reporter dissatisfied with the chairman’s unwillingness to make bigger headlines on this occasion by issuing an impolitic prediction. Brushing aside the crude trap, Israel instead recalls that in 2006, when then DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel was first grooming him to one day serve in the position, the Democrats didn’t anticipate winning the House, and yet they did. In 2010, when the party thought it was on firm footing in the majority, it ended up being thrashed. And last cycle, with Israel at the helm of the DCCC, Democrats exceeded the dreary forecast of some observers and ended up with a net gain of eight seats. 

“So I’ve giving up prophesizing,” Israel concludes. “It’s a waste of time.” 

Just because Israel won’t hazard a prognostication as to how many seats the Democrats will wind up with in the House when the final ballots are tabulated on Election Day does not mean that he doesn’t spend all day, every day, doing everything he can to arrive at as close to an educated guess as possible. 

A week before the Press Club event, Israel is barnstorming through his Long Island district, whisking from one appearance to another with the feverish intensity of a candidate fighting for his political life—not an incumbent facing only token opposition to his re-election, as Israel is this cycle. 

His aides are clearly accustomed to the breakneck pace; it is the clip at which Israel always seems to be marching. As fluent as he is in the nuances of every contested Congressional race in the country, he is just as well versed in the minute concerns of his own constituents and the subtle political dynamics at play in every town, village and city he represents. 

Though Israel’s work at the DCCC often requires him to travel, he tries to arrange his schedule so that as much as possible he wakes up every morning and goes to sleep every night in his district, which covers most of the North Shore of Long Island and presses into Queens to the west and Suffolk County to the east. In part, his preference for remaining in-district is because Israel is a “homebody,” as he puts it, intent upon pushing back at the considerable strain his second job inflicts upon his family life. It also reflects his avowed distaste for Washington, though his reasoning is not entirely personal. There is a sober, strategic rationale underlying the practice, too. 

“If you are a member of Congress and you take your district for granted, that’s a good way of losing your district,” Israel says. “So I take nothing for granted. Nothing.” 

In between stops—a sit-down with Newsday’s editorial board, coffee with a local mayor, a talk to a class of primary students—Israel is in virtually constant contact by phone with the brigade of top flight operatives, pollsters and flacks down at the Washington headquarters of DCCC he commands. 

Beyond refining the DCCC’s global strategy in real time to the ever-changing contours of the 24/7 news cycle, Israel personally checks in each week with every candidate the national committee has designated as running in a “red-to-blue” district, as well as every hopeful whose races the committee has labeled “emerging,” which comes out to between 30 and 40 in all. Weekends he emails every single one of these candidates “religiously.” And that’s just Israel’s outreach to his battalion of challengers. As chair of the DCCC, Israel’s paramount charge is to protect the seats of imperiled Democratic incumbents. This cycle there are 15 to 25 of those members, and he’s incessantly in touch with them. 

“I’ve always had a rule in politics, and that is not to agonize on anything that is out of my control, but to mobilize everything that is in my control,” Israel explains. “The climate in October, the president’s numbers: Those are out of my control. What’s in my control are the four M’s: the message of House candidates, the mobilization of our districts, the money that we have to raise and the management of our campaigns. I just focus on those things.” 

Much of Israel’s steely, methodical approach as a strategist and tactician seems derived from his abiding love of military history. Israel is such an avid Civil War buff that he founded the Battlefield Caucus in the House of Representatives to encourage his fellow members on both sides of the aisle to tour the sites of great battles in order to glean the lessons of their outcomes and apply them to evaluating present and future conflicts. 

“I visit Gettysburg frequently,” Israel beams, unable to suppress his enthusiasm when talking about one of his favorite subjects. “Everything that happened at Gettysburg plays out in campaigns and in battles throughout history.” 

Israel ticks off some of the takeaways he has internalized. “Number one: You have to have good communications and intelligence. One of the things that was overriding in Gettysburg was that General Lee lost communication with one of his most important sources of intel. Number two: Always find the high ground. Number three: Be innovative. I have a portrait in my office of [Union officer] Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Little Round Top when he ran out of ammunition and then gave the order to fix bayonets and charge. That’s innovation and motivation. … You’ve got to be willing to use all the tools in your tool box and sometimes break out of the orthodoxy in order to win the battle.” 

Though Israel knows that it will take a supreme effort to conquer the rocky terrain that extends before his troops this cycle, he sees a path to victory that at least on the surface does not appear to be delusional or just pure spin. 

The overall environment may be inhospitable to Democrats, but Israel points out that his mission is not to engage the GOP in every corner of the country. With most of the seats in the House either firmly red or blue either by geography or gerrymandering, all Israel has to do to succeed is win over the sliver of swing voters in the nation’s 50 or so battleground districts—the few million independents who are the living embodiment of the margin between triumph and defeat for both parties. 

To the untrained ear, it may sound dissonant to hear the chairman of the DCCC acknowledge that his paramount concern is not the votes of Democrats. But Israel is unrepentant in his frank appraisal of what must be done. 

“The job of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is to win campaigns,” he states with clinical certainty. “You cannot win campaigns in America in swing seats unless you can appeal to swing voters, so that’s where we concentrate.” 

Over his two terms as chair, Israel has angled to land the support of these voters in the center by recruiting moderate candidates whose focus is not ideology but solutions—one of Israel’s favorite buzzwords—and then to direct their message squarely at the core concerns of the middle class, while hammering away at the Republicans for being extremists, bereft of compassion for working families. 

Of course, articulating this strategy in theory is far easier than executing it in practice—even given Israel’s success with it in 2012. Unlike previous DCCC chairs (except his immediate predecessor, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland), Israel does not just have to grapple with the army across the field from him; he also must contend with the hordes of mercenaries, both on his side and his opponents’, unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. 

“The goals and requirements of the job are constantly evolving, and only grow over time,” observes Rep. Nita Lowey, who served as DCCC chair from 2001 to 2003 and is the only other New Yorker to have held the post since Roswell Flower in 1890. “We now have Super PACs to combat, and conservative interest groups mounting challenges that demand much more money and high-quality candidates,” says Lowey, adding, “Steve has been able to adapt.” 

To brace his candidates for this new theater of war, Israel likes to show them the scene from the movie 300 where the Persians threaten to obliterate the Greeks by firing so many arrows at them that they will “blot out the sun.” 

“I tell all my recruits that there are going to be times with Republican Super PACs and special interest money that they’re going to think that they can blot out the sun, and your job is to just fight them in the shade,” says Israel, riffing off the retort one of the film’s Spartans sneers. 

When Israel, who often frames his work at the DCCC in military terms, is asked if he views himself as the general of the House Democrats’ army, he is quick to describe himself instead as their “field marshal.” Though he does not say it explicitly, there is no question who is the party’s general: Nancy Pelosi. 

After the Democrats lost the House in 2010, Pelosi asked Israel what he thought had gone wrong. In response he prepared a three-page memo—one he describes as “clear-eyed and cold-blooded”—which essentially laid out the pragmatic course he has since devoted himself to putting into action. After Israel’s approach proved effective in 2012, Pelosi asked him to stay on in the job. 

As deep in the weeds as Israel is with every disputed district in the country, Pelosi is just as much if not more so. So frequently does she call Israel for updates on the campaigns that at the end of a day this reporter spent with the congressman in his district, his aides expressed genuine surprise that so many hours could have elapsed without the Leader ringing once. 

When I later share this observation with the congressman, first he half quips that, “She may have; I just didn’t answer,” and then launches into a story he calls one of his favorites. (It is one he rarely tells these days, because Pelosi is not terribly fond of it.) 

“I came back from one trip in my first term as DCCC chair, and my plane landed at LaGuardia a little late. We were delayed. I finally got back to my house in Dix Hills—it was about 10:30 at night, I was exhausted and I couldn’t wait to dive into bed—and just as my head settled on the pillow, my phone rang. I was going to ignore it, but I saw it was Leader Pelosi, so I picked it up, and we went district by district, race by race, all four corners of the country and everything in between for about an hour and a half.” 

“Now it’s just after midnight,” Israel continues, “so I committed a mortal sin: I yawned. And she said, ‘Steve, you sound a little tired.’ Admittedly, I got a little annoyed, because I was tired, and I had just spent my time on this trip, and I said, ‘Leader, you know, I am tired. You’re calling from San Francisco and I’m here in New York, so you’re three hours behind me.’ To which she said: ‘Oh, no, Steve. I’m actually at the Regency Hotel in New York, and I believe I’m meeting you here at 9 o’clock tomorrow, and I hope you won’t be late.’ ” 

Israel laughs. “That’s the grip and the grasp that she has on the operations of campaigns.” 

There is a certain irony to Israel being chair of the DCCC. That’s because when he first ran for Congress in 2000, the Committee aggressively supported his opponent. 

“They did everything they could to get me out,” Israel recalls with amusement. 

Back then, Israel was a lowly councilman in the town of Huntington brimming with the audacity to take on the establishment’s choice: a somewhat conservative member of the Suffolk County Legislature named David Bishop. Israel’s lifelong fascination with world history and international affairs made the platform of Congress too tantalizing a prize not to pursue, and the unlikely circumstances through which the opportunity had arisen represented just the type of lucky break that Chairman Israel drills into his candidates and recruits not to let pass unexploited. Rudy Giuliani, the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee for U.S. Senate against former First Lady Hillary Clinton, had shaken up the race by announcing his withdrawal—and all of a sudden Israel’s congressman, Rick Lazio, an incumbent Republican whom Israel never could have beaten, had vacated the seat, leaving no clear successor in his wake. 

Thus, despite DCCC’s efforts to scuttle his campaign, Israel pressed on and forced a highly contentious primary—a race a contemporary report from The New York Times characterized as “expensive, gloves-off” and “hostile.” In a preview of the savvy and drive Israel would later bring to the DCCC chairmanship, he ran hard to his opponent’s left, and branded Bishop as too extreme. Still, on Election Night as the numbers came in it appeared that Israel had come up short. 

“I was sitting in my campaign headquarters—I was with my daughter— and we were going down in flames,” Israel recounts. “[Former Rep.] Gary Ackerman was with me and he said, ‘Kid, you’re not going to make it. News 12’s out there. You should go out, do your concession and move on.’ So I started tying my tie. Then my daughter welled up. She said, ‘Daddy, you can’t do this. It’s not over.’… And—13 years old!—she said, ‘I don’t think all the results are in yet.’ I hugged her and said, ‘Oh, Carly!’ And at that very moment one of my political operatives burst in and said, ‘Dix Hills isn’t in yet! We thought we had it, but the Board just called! It didn’t come in yet!’ And that was my base. Five minutes later my opponent called and conceded. I was five minutes away from conceding when I didn’t have to!” 

Israel’s less than idyllic formative experience with the DCCC has left its mark on his approach to the chairmanship. As an example, Israel cites the two Democrats in New York’s 4th Congressional District vying for the seat Carolyn McCarthy is giving up to retire. 

“[It’s] why when I’m put under pressure to tell Kevan Abrahams to get out of the Kathleen Rice primary, I’ve said overtly and on the record, ‘I’m literally the last person on the planet Earth who should tell a candidate to get out of a primary for the good of the party, because I got that spiel and rejected it.” 

Another unlikely aspect of his chairmanship, is that with the explosion of money in politics in recent years, Israel—the sixth-poorest member of Congress, with more money in debts than assets, according to a 2014 study by the Center for Responsive Politics— may very well never have had the means to get elected in the first place, particularly running against the DCCC. 

Israel, 55, grew up in the modest, cookie-cutter community of Levittown, Long Island—the archetype for postwar suburbia—with a mother who was an at-home typist and a traveling semiconductor salesman for a father, neither of whom were politically minded. 

By the close of the ’70s, with Israel off at college, the middle class life his parents wanted to preserve had become increasingly difficult to maintain, so they moved away to Phoenix, Ariz. Around that time, Israel’s own eyes were opened to the challenges that come from having limited means. He had been accepted to George Washington University after graduating high school, but had to defer admission for two years and attend Nassau Community College while he raised enough money to help pay for his education. 

“I am middle class through and through—through and through,” Israel declares. “These issues propel me, because I lived the struggle.” 

“What you see with Steve is what you get,” emphasizes Israel’s friend, state Assemblyman Charles Lavine, a Democrat whose district overlaps with Israel’s. “At an intuitive level he understands the feelings of middle class Long Islanders.” 

As a result of his experience, the defense of the middle class has been the foremost domestic policy concern of Israel’s seven terms in Congress. Most recently, he commissioned a study from the Third Way, a bipartisan D.C. think tank, entitled “A Tale of Three Cities,” which demonstrated how families of near identical economic means from Hicksville, Long Island, Akron, Ohio and McAllen, Texas, shoulder a “drastically different” tax burden depending upon where they live—with New Yorkers paying by far the most. 

The aim of the report was to lend credence to Israel’s initiative to reform the federal tax code so it will take into consideration families’ cost of living, not just their income level. The study also provides evidence to support Israel’s larger effort to expand the definition of the middle class to encompass the current economic realities of America—a fight reflected in a showdown between himself and President Obama in 2011. Arguing that “rich is relative” to where a family lives, Israel aggravated the White House by needling the president to extend the Bush tax cuts for families making less than $450,000 per year, rather than the $250,000 threshold the president had widely stated he wanted. Ultimately, after a protracted spat, the president caved—a result Israel cites with pride. 

It is no coincidence that “Battleground: Middle Class” is the frame the DCCC is using this cycle to encapsulate its messaging. By actively recruiting moderates with a strong affinity for the middle class and a pragmatic philosophy toward governance, Chairman Israel is fashioning a prototype of Democrat he steadfastly believes is imperative for the party to embrace if it is to succeed in the future. But at the same time, Israel is also shrewdly remaking the party in his own image. 

“I did actually recruit people who reflect my own middle class sensibilities, people who are good fits for their district,” Israel admits. “We over-performed in 2012 because we recruited well. We recruited well because we went after more moderate, more centrist Democrats in swing districts. So it may be the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but part of that is Campaign Committee,” he laughs. “Which means you’ve got to win, which means you’ve got to recruit well, which means you’ve got to reach out to centrists.” 

Whether Israel’s grand strategy for the DCCC will actually lead to victory will remain a mystery until the polls close on Election Day—and perhaps beyond then. 

Historically, the party with a sitting president, particularly in his second term, has fared poorly in the midterm elections. Over the last 21 midterms, the party of the incumbent president has lost an average of 30 seats in the House. 

President Obama’s dismal popularity and the current political climate of the country offer House Democrats little cause for optimism—at least at this moment in time—that they will be able to defy these historic trends in November. As such, even if Israel fails to repeat the success he had in 2012—even if he goes down to significant defeat—the outcome of the race may not necessarily be viewed as a referendum on the rightness of his strategy. 

“No one person is responsible for our success in any given election, and any number of variables outside of anyone’s control can impact elections,” emphasizes former DCCC chair Lowey. 

While this is certainly true, for most of us it is hard to fully separate emotion from reason, particularly in instances where we have worked so hard toward trying to achieve an end. Asked how it will affect him if the Democrats lose this cycle, Israel declines to speculate. 

“It can’t affect you. You can’t factor that in,” he avers, before pivoting the subject to another of his passions. 

“Most of my attitude at DCCC has been forged by being a Mets fan. I know that you can’t predict the outcome of the ninth inning in the first inning—and watching the Mets on many occasions, you can’t even predict the outcome of the ninth inning in the ninth inning!” 

As fans of the New York Mets understand viscerally, to be an unwavering devotee of the team is essentially to embrace masochism. Is this how he views the Democrats’ chances? 

Israel is unfazed by the question. 

“But every once in a while you get a Mookie Wilson who is able to hit a ground ball through Bill Buckner’s legs,” he responds without missing a beat, referencing the team’s miraculous 1986 World Series victory. “So you’ve just got to be prepared.” 

 

 

Morgan Pehme
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