Rep. Israel crosses borders

U.S. Rep. Steve Israel reflects on potentially representing northeast Queens communities under newly drawn congressional districts. Photo by Christina Santucci
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U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Hauppauge) said he would have no trouble crossing over the Queens border, much like he has reached across the political aisle in his career to try and solve the country’s biggest problems.

Under newly redrawn congressional district lines, the Long Island congressman may soon represent voters from Little Neck, Douglaston, Bay Terrace, Whitestone and Beechhurst if re-elected in November. Israel sat down in the TimesLedger Newspapers’ offices in Bayside last week to outline his approach to representing his potentially new territory and how he valued compromise in the political sphere.

“I’m anxious and eager to go to work here,” Israel said. “There’s clearly a learning curve. I’m not going to pretend to know what I don’t, which is why I’ve spent every day since the maps were finalized meeting with local community leaders.”

In 2006, Israel helped launch the House Center Aisle Caucus, a group of 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans who would meet weekly at the Hunan Dynasty Chinese restaurant on Capitol Hill to refresh the political discourse.

“We’d talk for five minutes about what we disagreed on. Then the next 55 minutes were about what we could agree on,” Israel said. “It was one of the most refreshing experiences I’ve ever had.”

Since then, Israel said, the caucus had trouble gathering Republican support, which he attributed to the influence of the conservative grassroots and politically charged Tea Party movement.

“They were afraid of the word ‘compromise’ and they were afraid they’d be punished by the Tea Party for talking to Democrats,” Israel said. “So the caucus became defunct. I still believe we can find commonality across the aisle.”

The congressman has voted along Democratic Party lines 94 percent of the time, according to congressional records, but Israel said such records were misleading because they included formality votes.

But he is not always in agreement with his Democratic colleagues. On the issue of America’s policy toward Israel, the congressman said he leaned to the right with an emphatic support for the region.

Israel currently represents New York’s 2nd District, which includes Huntington, Babylon, Islip, Smithtown and Oyster Bay. But redrawn congressional lines will rename the area District 3, which no one has yet declared a campaign for.

In adjusting to governing residents of Queens, the presumptive congressman said there was not much of a difference in those broad national issues.

“On national issues, I’m not sure there’s that much of a difference between Little Neck and Huntington,” Israel said. “People want a Congress that’s about ideas and not ideology. I think there’s a commonality between the district I’ve represented for 10 years and newer areas.”

The three priority issues Israel said he has championed throughout his more than 10 years in Congress were rebuilding the middle class, American energy policies, veterans protection and protecting small businesses, which he called the greatest challenge facing the country.

“If you’re in the middle class, you’ve taken it on the chin,” Israel said. “I’m really excited about taking my focus on rebuilding the middle class in this country to the new areas that I represent.”

Israel said he was proud of his defense of the middle class, saving working families $1,500 in the year 2012 by voting to extend payroll tax cuts and delivering more than $5 million in benefits to his area’s veterans.

In defining the middle class, Israel said he disagreed with President Barack Obama in the classification of “rich,” which Obama’s tax policies have declared as people earning at least $250,000 a year. According to Israel, a person’s wealth should be relative to his or her costs of living rather than salary.

Israel said he was also in full support of women’s rights, as issues like abortion and contraception have become more prevalent in the country’s political dialogue.

Referring to himself as a quintessential product of the middle class, Israel grew up in Levittown on Long Island and said he wanted to go to George Washington University, but could not afford the tuition. After spending two years at his local Nassau Community College, Israel said he transferred to GWU on student loans and worked in Washington, D.C., during his college years.

Upon his return to Long Island, Israel married his wife Marlene Budd and worked for the American Jewish Congress before opening up his own small business in marketing.

Before Congress, Israel served on Long Island’s Huntington town council, where he said he learned there was no partisan way to pave a pothole or clean a park.

Though he has represented Long Island for about a decade, Israel said his familiarity with Queens dated back to his upbringing.

“I’m actually a product of Queens,” Israel said. “I used to spend every Sunday of my childhood in Flushing where my father grew up.”

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

Updated 10:28 am, April 19, 2012
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