New York City

Back to school with Steve Israel

Former congressman Steve Israel is confronting our volatile political era with a new politics institute at Cornell.

Former Rep. Steve Israel

Former Rep. Steve Israel Jill Greenberg

Democrats and Republicans are at each other’s throats. Foreign crises are erupting across the globe. The American electorate, transfixed by the latest Twitter fights and susceptible to the spread of fake news, is swinging the country from right to left and back again.

“In 16 years in Congress, one of the lessons I learned was that for many policymakers, nothing matters until the military gives it an acronym – and the acronym that the military now applies to our state of affairs is VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous,” said Steve Israel, a former congressman who left office two years ago. “We now have one of the most volatile and complex political environments in our history. Yet we tend to apply simple sound bites to that.”

And unlike many fellow Democrats, Israel insists it’s not just President Donald Trump.

“All of our politics is chaotic, across the board,” he said. “Just take a look at recent electoral history. In 2008, Americans elect Barack Obama. In 2010, they elect a sweeping Republican majority in the House to counter Barack Obama. In 2012, they re-elect Barack Obama. In 2014, they preserve the Republican majority to counter Barack Obama. In 2016, they elect Donald Trump. And in 2018, they elect a Democratic majority to counter Trump. If that’s not volatile, I don’t know what is!”

Israel’s answer to the fraught political era that we find ourselves in? This spring, he is launching a new academic institute – the Cornell Institute of Politics and Global Affairs – to “raise the discourse, deepen the understanding of political affairs,” he said. “I want the Institute of Politics to be the place that New Yorkers go to for an enriched understanding of political content and enhanced access to political leaders.”

Israel’s new, nonpartisan politics institute at Cornell University won’t be the first of its kind. In fact, Israel launched a similar entity, the Long Island University Global Institute, based at the school’s Brookville campus, shortly after retiring from Congress. Such luminaries as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Joseph Biden, Colin Powell and David Petraeus have come to speak at the LIU institute, a separate entity that Israel will remain affiliated with.

But this time, he is expanding his portfolio and setting his sights higher, partnering with a pre-eminent Ivy League university while aiming to emulate the track record of similar politics institutes at Harvard University and the University of Chicago. Since its 2013 launch, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics has become a destination for political figures under the leadership of David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former political strategist, hosting the likes of Obama, Biden, Bernie Sanders, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Israel believes New York should have its own version – and he is hoping to fill that void when Cornell University’s politics institute officially launches on March 1.

After all, the state is home to many of the nation’s most well-known politicians – like sports stars, some are identifiable by a single name: Trump, Schumer, AOC, Hakeem. As many as half a dozen New Yorkers are at least flirting with a presidential run, from U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who recently announced her candidacy, to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is expected to make a decision soon, to longer shots like Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“One of the reasons I believe that an institute of politics is valuable in New York is because New York has become an epicenter of intense political activity,” Israel said. “The minority leader of the Senate is a New Yorker. The president of the United States, a New Yorker. The chairman of the Democratic caucus, a New Yorker. The early and brisk winds of change in Congress came to New York with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary outcome. The midterm elections changed more seats than anybody thought in New York. So New York really is the nexus of these swirling political winds – and a perfect place for an institute of politics and global affairs.”

lsrael, who was invited by Axelrod to teach a course on the midterm elections at the University of Chicago this past fall, learned some valuable lessons.

“What I learned at the University of Chicago was that it’s become an almost mandatory place for political leaders to go – if they can wrangle an invitation, which is hard to get!” Israel said. “I would love to emulate that in New York.”

In early March, Israel plans to unveil an ambitious 2019 program. Democratic presidential contenders are already lining up to speak. Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle, including a number of Israel’s former colleagues, are being invited. Top Trump administration officials may make their way to Cornell’s flagship campus in Ithaca as well.

“I’ve talked to several Democratic presidential candidates who have agreed to come,” Israel said, although he wouldn’t name any names quite yet. “I’m hoping the Cornell Institute will be a stopping-off point for anybody running for president.”

Steve Israel
Portrait by Jill Greenberg
For those who know Steve Israel, it’s not surprising to find him heading up such an institute. He was a bookworm growing up, staying inside reading and writing when his peers were out playing ball. As a youth he submitted his first op-ed to Newsday, making the case for a monorail running down the Long Island Expressway from Riverhead to New York City. The newspaper published it, but didn’t note that the author was just 13 years old.

“You can’t imagine how many phone calls and letters I received from monorail companies wanting to hire me as a consultant,” Israel said. “Then I realized politics could be pretty good! It taught me a lesson that if you have a platform, you can get things done and get people to agree with you. That’s what kind of solidified it for me.”

He has been writing ever since – especially in his post-congressional career, which has allowed him to purse his love of teaching as well. “I tell you, as a member of Congress I had town halls, I had to face off with angry and challenging constituents – nothing compared to a student in one of my classes!” he said with a laugh.

While Israel was a relatively moderate congressman, given his politically divided Long Island district, he was not shy about fighting for Democratic causes, and even led the party’s House campaign efforts for several years.

But now, he is deliberately taking a more measured approach as the head of a nonpartisan institute.

“Absolutely, completely nonpartisan,” Israel said. “Sound bites just aren’t working any more. And to really understand the complexity and the volatility of politics, you have to be exposed to arguments outside your comfort zone. That’s one of the services we will provide.”

In an interview, Israel elaborated on why New York needs such an institute – now more than ever.

With President Donald Trump on one side and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the other, are they prime examples of politicians offering sound bites as opposed to real substance?

Look, people tend to view New York as a solidly blue state, and it may be a blue state in presidential elections, but it’s mostly pockets of purple. I served as a congressman for 16 years representing a quintessential middle-class community that could as easily vote for a Democrat as a Republican, or could as easily vote for a Republican as a Democrat. So the complexity of issues confronting those areas are different from other areas of New York. New York is just a fabric of different outlooks and dispositions, and one of the things the institute will be doing is examining that fabric.

Ocasio-Cortez has become a national progressive icon. But there also are new Democratic House members from New York like Antonio Delgado and Max Rose who are more moderate.

I chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for four years, and so my job was not to look at the map as a whole, but to look at single districts in that map and examine what was happening in those districts. The complexity of politics for Democrats in the House right now is that there’s this incredible new energy and a vitally necessary infusion of progressives. At the same time, the growth in the Democratic caucus came from districts that were right of center.

So the analogy I often use is the Brooklyn analogy. The way the Democrats won the midterms in 2018, they won it in two places: They won in Brooklyn, New York, with progressive energy. They also won in Brooklyn, Iowa, with a more moderate candidate in a more moderate district. Brooklyn, Iowa, was represented by a Republican, now it’s represented by a Democrat. That’s another example of volatility in the electorate right now.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn held a position you previously had, leading the House Democrats’ messaging. How did he do in that role – and what are his future prospects?

I think the sky’s the limit for Hakeem Jeffries. I worked closely with him when I was in Congress. There are three types of members of the House. Everybody’s climbing a ladder, trying to advance. There are three types of people on that ladder. There are ones ahead who are stomping on the knuckles of the person behind. There are those at the bottom grabbing the ankles of the people ahead of them. And then there are people like Hakeem Jeffries, who works with everybody, who lifts people up and supports people in front of him. So he’s become the quintessential model of excellence as a member of Congress, so it’s no surprise to me that he’s the chairman of the caucus – and will go even further if he so desires.

By contrast, there are reports that some fellow Democrats are unhappy with Ocasio-Cortez.

One of the things that I will not do as the new director of the Institute of Politics is to pass judgment on any member of Congress. They make their own judgments as to how they will lead. What I will say is that success in Congress for many members requires a national platform, national effectiveness, while at the same time working hard for constituents.

Look, I was the DCCC chair, so I had this national platform in a district that didn’t have a strong affinity for Democrats. And we worked through that by making sure that if there was a veteran who was entitled to back pay or didn’t get a medal that he or she deserved, we busted our butts to get that done. So Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, I think she’ll be fine, because she will balance the two.

I was struck by the fact that she embraced Pelosi –

She voted for her.

When some younger members were challenging Nancy Pelosi’s leadership after the election, you came to her defense. Were you vindicated?

I don’t need to be vindicated or validated. I made that case because I was very close to her. I was her political lieutenant for four years while I chaired the DCCC, and I saw firsthand how she gets things done. I believe that if she had not been selected as speaker, the outcome of the shutdown may have been different.

Look, I may be a Democrat, but the only thing that I’m really partisan about is my love of the New York Mets. The argument that well, Mike Piazza has been with us a long time, so, you know, let’s let him go – no, if you’re good and you produce runs and you’re good at defense, you don’t go until you are not producing runs or you lose your ability at defense. Pelosi was producing runs, and she knew how to defend.

Early on last year you were skeptical about whether Democrats would pick up enough seats to take back the House, and you emphasized the importance of gubernatorial elections. How did that play out?

I’m not in the business of advising Democrats anymore, although I am a Democrat, but one of the things I think Democrats have recognized is what Republicans recognized in 2010, which is you can’t be a one-tool player. You can’t just be about House races, or Senate races. You can’t just be about governors. You've got to do both. Now the Republican Party mastered this in 2010 when they defeated over 1,000 state and local Democrats around the country to control the redistricting and built a firewall. Democrats I think have recently and successfully emulated that effort, through the Democratic Governors Association and Eric Holder’s national redistricting trust. They’ve realized that you have to play short-term and long-term at the same time, something that Republicans schooled them in on in 2010 and 2012.

Redistricting is a critical issue for both parties. Is it getting enough attention?

It is now. When I was partisan Democrat in Congress, I was very frustrated at the lack of attention that Democrats were giving to governors because I knew that governors were going to be essential to the drawing of maps that would protect Democrats. Forget partisan redistricting. If you just had fair redistricting standards in every state, Democrats would have 44 more seats than they had in the last Congress. Now they actually took 40 in the midterm election.

One of the things we’re going to look at, without a partisan taint to it, is the effect of gerrymandered redistricting on our political discourse and on dynamics on Capitol Hill.

The new Cornell institute has the term “global affairs” in its name. What are the biggest international threats you see?

In Congress, I was deeply active and specialized in national security, a member of the Armed Services Committee, a member of the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. I have never seen a global environment as volatile and as complicated as we have now. Today we are withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, and at the same time there’s some contemplation of sending them to Venezuela. That is pretty volatile! That is unpredictable!

One of the things I want to do at the institute is delving into those global complexities, because they impact New York immensely! Trade impacts New York immensely! Global technologies impact business in New York. The military movements abroad have an immediate impact to New York. The institute will be bringing those global leaders, political leaders and thought leaders to New York to explain what is happening in the world and to discuss how we address those trends.

Where will you be going?

I anticipate the Middle East and Asia. The rise of authoritarian regimes in Europe deserves more study and focused understanding. Quite literally, the world is our horizon.

There’s a Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. Will you be working with them?

The thing that really attracted me to Cornell, other than it’s an Ivy League institution, was its extraordinary innovation. The fact that they have a tech campus on Roosevelt Island really appealed to me because a lot of our public policy and our politics will apply to the fastest pace of technological change that we’ve ever seen. So there’s this new intersection between technology and public policy, and what better place than the Cornell University Roosevelt Island campus? So we’re going to be very active in that space and do conferences and research there.

You have a recent novel out called “Big Guns.” Are you working on a new novel?

I specialize in political satire. Right now the market for political satire is soft. It’s soft because we’re surrounded by political satire! You don’t need to pay money for a book when you can get it from a tweet. You can get from the late-night talk shows. So I’ve decided to take a hiatus from political satire and I’m right now working on a nonfiction book about the politics of immigration in Washington during the Holocaust, which I think has some application to current debate.

Can you elaborate on that?

It was an unlikely legislative duo that came together to respond to the refugee crisis in Nazi Germany. One was Sen. Robert Wagner, who emigrated from Prussia to this country, was a ward heeler for Tammany Hall, just a good old New York street fighter. The other was a Republican congresswoman, Edith Nourse Rogers from Boston, who graduated from a finishing school in Paris, France, who was a critic of FDR, and loved to wear gardenias and orchids on the shoulder.

These two people, polar opposites, came together to introduce a bill to provide 20,000 additional visas to German children who wanted to flee Nazi Germany after the Kristallnacht, the "Night of the Broken Glass." They introduce it in February 1939, when many people thought it was going to pass.

When you read the transcripts of the hearings, it is as if you are reading today’s newspapers about what is happening on the southern border. The same nativism, the same xenophobia, in many cases the same quotes. I want to do a book about that process, those dynamics behind the scenes in Washington in 1939. I want to explain what happened to that bill – but I’m not going to give away the ending.