How Steve Israel Exited The Race

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[City Hall]

This is not what Steve Israel was expecting.

The heads-up dinner with Sen. Charles Schumer (D) was eaten. The internal poll showing 60 percent of people were less likely to vote for the incumbent after hearing her record on guns and tobacco had been parsed.

The phone system was ordered, the website designed, the preliminary offers to campaign staff had been made. 

May 20 had been chosen to make the maximum splash while allowing enough time to clock significant fundraising numbers in the last month of the second quarter—conference call with supporters and friends at 2 p.m., blast to a 50,000-e-mail list at 2:30, conference call with reporters at 3. The paperwork was ready for a full campaign launch, not just an exploratory committee, and the schedule of targeted announcements and intimate town hall meetings through July was mostly set.

There was work left to do in the last week—shoring up a few more supporters, having a few more meetings with his colleagues in the delegation, finalizing the script for the campaign video, which would have featured photographs of places like the Brooklyn hospital where he was born and his father’s apartment building near Shea Stadium then and now, with his voice-over about how some things have changed in New York but some things never should.

Some change is good, but some things should never change,” he said, sitting in his D.C. office a week before the campaign announcement.

“For me, it’s protecting our kids from guns—we shouldn’t change our position on that. We should be standing up to the NRA every day, not just recently. It’s protecting our kids from tobacco—we shouldn’t change our positions on that. It’s making sure our kids grow up in an inclusive, tolerant place—we shouldn’t change our position on immigration. On the fundamental, core issues of keeping New York safe and prosperous for our kids, I believe consistency and principle is vital. And that’s what this is about.”

He acknowledged that this was no random list, but precisely the issues on which he was planning to hit Kirsten Gillibrand, and on which she was most vulnerable. He knew. He had paid for the polls.

The clock on the wall began buzzing, calling him for votes, and he mused about Don Quixote. Israel keeps a cheap edition of the novel out on a shelf and a statuette of the Man of La Mancha himself at the edge of his desk.

“I love having Don Quixote,” he said. “It proves to me that if you’re not willing to give up, you’re not willing to give in, you can get things done.”

His candidacy was an open secret, leaking everywhere, but he resisted the urge to go public before the carefully-laid plan dictated. “I believe in doing things on my time frame, at my own comfort level,” he said. “And I don’t want other people to decide when I do things, or how.”

He stood to welcome a group of car dealers down from New York, there to make their case to him. The meeting lasted a few minutes, then he rushed off to the House floor. Call time to pull in more donors was scheduled for the rest of the afternoon.

Then came the call from the White House. Rahm Emanuel wanted to see him. Immediately.

Three hours earlier, Israel was sitting in Hunan Dynasty, a favorite D.C. haunt. The congressman is a Chinese food fanatic—three to five meals minimum per week—so this was the natural choice for an embargoed interview explaining the candidacy that was already underway, though not publicly. The hostess hugged him hello. The waitress brought over a complimentary California roll. But the congressman concentrated less on the food than on the rhetoric which he expected to soon make public. “Leadership” and “principles” were key words. “Appointment, not anointment,” was a phrase he seemed to like, as was “vote any way the wind blows.”

The appeal to party unity being made by some back home did not faze him.

“I believe particularly when a senator is appointed that it is healthy, if not necessary for the public to have an opportunity, for Democrats to have an opportunity to shape that decision,” he said, adding later, “I always thought it was Republicans who discouraged competition at the polls. I don’t think Democrats ought to discourage competition at the polls after an appointment.”

Two days earlier, he had kicked off the last week of pre-campaign with a big green energy summit on the home turf at Farmingdale State to produce an integrated proposal for the Department of Energy aimed at making the Route 110 corridor the new smart-grid capital of the nation. Earlier that day, he stood with Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Nassau), railing against illegal guns. Sure, the event was supposed to be better attended and about the Assault Weapons Ban, but whatever. The news hit was about gun safety, the picture of Israel at the side of McCarthy, the unimpeachable voice on gun safety and on attacking Gillibrand. Fellow Gillibrand basher and Senate hopeful Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan/Queens) as a late addition to the event helped, too.

The inevitable question soon came: “Will the three of you agree among yourselves which, if any, of you would run in the Democratic primary in New York?”
McCarthy hemmed and hawed. No one had announced yet, she said. Maloney put her hand on McCarthy’s shoulder, said she would be honored to support her. Then there was Israel. Silently, he nodded a few times quickly, a big grin on his face.

Yes.  He could.

“There was a team in place, a manager in place, a group of consultants in place—a serious road map to do this,” said one person close to Israel with knowledge of the planning. “He was 1,000 percent in. He was all the way in, prepared fully to engage in a full-throated campaign.”

Or, in the words of Resi Cooper, Hillary Clinton’s former Long Island director and a consultant on Israel’s campaign: “This is the greatest campaign that never was.”

Israel and his team had been expecting to hear from the administration. Just not yet. They had a hunch what was coming. Nonetheless, they held out hope.

“Things hadn’t gone exactly as planned the whole way, so I think there was some question as to exactly how the administration was going to come out here,” said one of the people involved with the Israel campaign. “You can’t be as smart as Rahm Emanuel is and as brilliant as the president is—it’s not like they didn’t see these polls … it was not a completely left-field scenario to let this play out.”

Not that they expected warm words of encouragement.

“Best case was that we go in there and make our case that we were serious and we were going to bust our butts and were going to make this happen, and convince them to give us time,” the person involved with the campaign said. “That would have been all we could ask.”Having until the fall to raise money and demonstrate support would have been ideal. But even getting a pass to stay in until the end of the fundraising quarter on June 30 would have been a victory for the nascent campaign operation.

Israel and Emanuel are friends, and have been since their days working together on the DCCC. Among the many things they connect on are New York bagels, which Israel often brings for him when the trip to Washington includes going through New York City (Emanuel’s characteristic response to the dozen sent over when he became chief of staff was a short e-mail: “Thanks for bagels. You forgot the lox.”)

Israel has been a frequent visitor to Emanuel’s West Wing office since Inauguration Day to talk about policy. This time, though, the conversation was pure politics, according to several people close to Israel familiar with the discussion.

Like many things, the end of Israel’s candidacy came as part of a larger deal. Senate Democrats have set the new benchmark for a governing majority at a filibuster-proof 60, and even with Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter now on board and Al Franken to arrive soon from Minnesota, they would prefer a few seats to spare. Next year’s political map presents opportunities in unlikely places like Kentucky, Missouri and Maine. There are already unexpected problems in Illinois and Connecticut.

They do not want to have to worry about another incumbent, particularly in the pricey New York media markets, even if there is no strong state Republican Party at the moment to run a general. The primary would be enough of a drain.

For all the excited talk of Democratic cooperation, the White House needs to be on good terms with the Senate to move its agenda. According to several familiar with what was said, taking care of this problem was the first and only favor the Senate Democrats have asked of the White House so far. Somewhat reluctantly, the administration decided to provide for them.

Clearing the field in New York was not about Gillibrand or Israel, left wing politics or moderate politics, gun stances or immigrant rights. It was about Senate Democrats having enough cash to seize red meat territory in the heartland and a new White House eager to collect a big chit.

So Israel was given an ultimatum: if he proceeded with the Senate race, the White House would go to great pains to shut off every dollar in the state. With Schumer’s help, the administration would make sure all the big Democratic donors and institutional players kept their distance. They would show no restraint, even campaigning against him and raising money in Israel’s own home turf.

Obama himself would come out to campaign in New York City, cutting off at the knees the downstate, Manhattan-focused appeal Israel would have needed to run to Gillibrand’s left. And perhaps most damning of all, given whom the math dictated Israel would have needed in his column, Emanuel indicated that the nation’s first black president was prepared to barnstorm through New York’s black neighborhoods hand-in-hand with the junior senator, employing his appeal to African-Americans to a political degree he usually avoids. Oh, and as for Israel having any role shaping policy in the House while all this was going on? Forget it.

Those were the sticks.

Or, Emanuel told Israel, there was another option.  Step aside and earn the gratitude of the White House. Israel wants to be a prime player on green energy, one of Obama’s legislative priorities. Common ground could be found. Emanuel knew how to rise through the ranks of the House leadership—he was third in command, not all that far from being speaker before accepting his job from Obama. Perhaps something along those lines was of interest? And hey, these days, you never know what could happen in politics anywhere in the country, but especially in New York. Another opportunity could arise sooner than he might think. Counting the president and White House chief-of-staff as friends might be of some use.

Israel left Emanuel’s office with a pretty clear picture of where things stood. His closest circle of advisors—chief of staff Jack Pratt, campaign manager Justin Schall and his consultants, Resi Cooper and John Lapp—anxiously waited for word of what had happened. He made them wait a little as he processed the conversation himself while keeping up appearances during the annual D.C. fundraiser for the Assembly Democrats hosted by Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees reception that night.

Briefly, Israel and his team considered a campaign with the White House against them. Perhaps they could call Obama’s bluff—after all, he is the man who won the most successful anti-establishment, left-leaning primary campaign in history. Coming out for Gillibrand if he stayed in would have required a notable conceptual contortion. But given how and when Emanuel weighed in, they believed the White House would follow through. Even so, they wondered whether they could still woo enough of the hard-core left that votes in New York primaries (a population which gave Jonathan Tasini 16 percent in 2006 against Hillary Clinton, after all) to be competitive. Maybe, they said—though not with Obama, Emanuel and Schumer starving them of enough money to fund even the lower-cost, direct-mail, grassroots campaign being planned.

And then there was the line at the heart of Emanuel’s appeal: “We need you to serve your country.” That proved the most difficult to get past, everyone agreed. Israel could not ignore the call to duty.

Said one person involved with the campaign: “It was a little hard for me to say to him, ‘Well, I think I know how you can serve your country better than the president.’ That was a hard one to sell.”

Israel spent much of the next day on the House floor, voting on bills, struggling with what to do and smiling as his friends in Congress, still in the dark, egged him into just declaring his candidacy already.

“Thursday and Friday were tough days,” he said later, looking back. “One of the most difficult elements of this was speaking to my colleagues and hearing their encouragement and not being absolutely certain that I was going to make this race.”

The circle of those who knew what was happening remained extremely tight. Even Gov. David Paterson (D) was apparently kept out of the loop (the governor’s office declined comment as to whether the White House informed him before deciding to get involved in state party politics and protecting the senator he appointed).

The regular campaign staff call was delayed until the next morning, but mapping out an exit strategy through back channels with the White House began. How would he drop out? When? The Israel camp had invested a lot of time and political capital in lining up the pieces. Promises had been made. Favors had been extracted. Deals had been struck.

Israel woke that Friday morning still in Washington, still sure he could run and run strong, no matter what Emanuel had said. He is a man with an admittedly healthy ego anyway, and the notion that his in utero candidacy had already forced the White House’s hand only fed that.

“Based on all the polls that are out there, and based on the president’s preference, I believed I could still go forward,” he said, reflecting on his mindset at the time. “But then I made the assessment that it would be a lot to ask of my staff, it would be a lot to ask of my family and it would be a lot to ask of myself to go against the preferences of the president of the United States.”

So okay, he said. He would not run. But nor would he walk away from all that he had built without giving his supporters and allies, as well as the political world at large, a reason. The best reason, in fact. The president would ask Israel to leave himself.

A call was arranged for that afternoon.

Israel landed back at LaGuardia just after 2:30. When the phone rang, promptly at 3, he was in the car, a staffer behind the wheel, moving slowly over the Queens/Nassau border.

Up on the wall of the reception area of his Washington office, Israel has a photo of the last time he spoke to the president, when, he admits, he knocked his way through the crowd to get a handshake and a moment to chat after the State of the Union. This conversation was longer, more personal and much more direct. Obama told Israel how concerned he was about holding the Senate seat for Democrats and the worrisome effect of a serious primary. Party unity at this moment, Obama told him, was extremely important.

Israel acknowledged what was in play.

“Mr. President, I understand your views, I understand how seriously you feel about this,” he said, “and to respect party unity and your request, I won’t pursue it this year.”

They chatted about the climate change bill, creating green jobs. They chatted about the congressional reception at the White House that Israel was planning to attend with his wife the following week, the evening of what would have been his debut as a candidate.

In a little over five minutes the conversation was over. They exchanged goodbyes.

“I’ll see you Wednesday night, buddy,” Obama said.

And so ended Steve Israel for Senate 2010. But not all was lost in that phone call, the congressman joked. “If you’ve got to sit in rush-hour traffic on the Grand Central Parkway,” he said, laughing, “not a bad way to pass the time.”

The other major contenders did not take the news well. McCarthy, who was finally content that she had gotten someone else to take on Gillibrand (and was planning to endorse Israel as soon as possible without offending the other candidates), was standing in the flower aisle of her local Home Depot when the call came. She was furious, burning with a rage so white-hot about her president closing off the challenge that even her closest advisors kept back.

Maloney was furious, too, but not because Obama had called Israel. She was furious because she had not been called, had not been hauled in for a workout with Emanuel herself.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (D), meanwhile, started road-testing a Catskills routine about wondering where his phone was and how he could get interrupted by a call at any moment. But his plans were unchanged, he insisted the next morning. Four days later, he was out of the race.

Israel got back to his district office, informed his staff. He made a few more calls, then headed home to get ready for a trip upstate that remained on the calendar: his older daughter Carly graduating from SUNY Albany. Campaign or not, that was where he was going to be spending his Saturday.

The last time Israel’s Senate hopes crumbled, at the end of the appointment process, he was standing in an airport on his D.C. commute. For a moment, his heart skipped: there, on CNN, was footage of him walking across the screen! It was actually happening!

But no, he realized after a few seconds, this was just B-roll of Paterson from the last time he had made national news with a visit to the Middle East at the end of December, which Israel had been part of as well. That had been a productive trip, or so it seemed at the time. Between visits with the troops, he and the governor had bonded over his interest in the Senate seat and a common interest in green energy. Paterson was in the midst of writing his State of the State then. Somewhere over Afghanistan, they spent three hours conceiving and developing the section proposing an upstate research consortium on hybrid electric batteries—the only substantive policy proposal in the speech—building on ideas of statewide cooperation on energy that had come to him while traveling the state, to make him everyone’s first, or at least second, choice for Hillary Clinton’s seat, as he had been advised to do by the governor.

Of course Israel was going to run for Senate eventually. He has a story about watching the Watergate hearings in ninth grade while the other kids were outside playing softball, a story about being drawn into politics by seeing his fourth-grade teacher slump down upon hearing the news of Robert Kennedy’s death over the PA system, and even a story about completing an assignment earlier that year to draw a cartoon with Lyndon Johnson, in a Stetson, declaring, “Vietnam is a rootin’, tootin’ war.”

Running for Senate next is what people like Israel do: he was student council president in high school (actual campaign slogan: “Don’t be dizzy, vote for Izzy”), a congressional staffer right out of college, an aide to the Suffolk County executive back home and a Huntington town councilman, all leading up to the bare-knuckled, behind-the-scenes primary machinations which helped him flip Rick Lazio’s old House seat in 2000. Almost immediately, he was negotiating a hardball gerrymander that traded the more Republican areas out of his district for the more Democratic ones of what was Rep. Peter King’s (R), even as he stayed in the conservative Blue Dog caucus, voted for the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War and proudly circulated a photo back home of him and his wife arm-in-arm with George W. Bush that almost prompted a liberal primary challenge of his own in 2004.

Slowly, he began to tack left. He resigned from the Blue Dogs, though he retained his openness to tax cuts, and slowly worked his way up the ranks on the Armed Services Committee (since left behind), where his interest in renewable energy was first piqued as an offshoot of national security, and on the Appropriations Committee, which gives him crucial power over funding.

He was among the many beginning to circle for Clinton’s Senate seat as she led the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, then had that dream die a slow death as the presidential primaries lurched through South Carolina, Super Tuesday, Wisconsin, North Carolina.

In the bizarre, drawn-out appointment process after her surprise departure for the State Department, though, Israel quickly emerged as a star. He was on every list of major contenders. He resonated. He felt strong. Down to the wire, he knew he was still in the running.

Israel stayed away the morning that Paterson announced he was appointing Gillibrand, who had not traveled the state like he had over the previous weeks. He was, however, up in Gillibrand’s neck of the woods just a few days later, helping seal Scott Murphy as the Democratic nominee for her old seat as part of his duties as the national recruiting chair for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a recent promotion.

Being in on the ground floor with the newer members has fed his popularity among his colleagues, building strong relationships he was planning to use to position himself as the delegation choice in the primary. Instead, in the days since the president’s call, his colleagues have been getting pressure to throw their support to Gillibrand, who has been told by the White House that solidifying the delegation is a precondition for further support. Many, however, still harbor resentment, either because of personal dislike, a lingering frustration with the absurdity of the appointment process, her leapfrogging over them despite lacking seniority or her ideological distance from them. Israel getting knocked aside has only exacerbated some of those feelings.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan), the dean of the delegation, said he was optimistic that the bitterness can be overcome.

“We hope we can avoid a primary, but every member has to decide. We have such qualified candidates in the delegation, so I don’t want to put a damper on anybody that’s worked hard,” Rangel said, the morning after Israel’s decision went public.

After all, Rangel said, with the new president’s standing in the Democratic Party and the country as a whole, there was no arguing with him, even with the controversial move of mixing up in a primary.

“Right now,” Rangel explained, “the president can’t do any bad things.”

Gillibrand and Israel did not speak after he made his announcement. They have not since a congressional reception at Gracie Mansion May 1. But though he may be out of the race, Israel said he does not expect to keep quiet about her in the years ahead, especially on those “New York values” he was planning to put at the center of his campaign.

We’re going to have to continue to disagree on some of those issues, and I’ll continue to stand firm on principle,” he said. “You can speak up when you think someone is wrong without necessarily running a primary against them. And that’s what I told the White House that I’d be willing to do.”

One of the immediate reactions to the president’s intervention among local Democrats was fear. How weak really is Gillibrand if the White House needed to get involved so heavy and so early, they worried. Former Gov. George Pataki (R), whose spokesperson said is making a decision unaffected by the developments on the Democratic side, has opened up an eight-point lead in the latest Marist Poll. They wonder if the national political chess game which cleared the field for Gillibrand could cause a big problem for the party in New York next November.

Israel, a self-taught history buff who has an edited book of underdog military speeches under his belt, framed the reaction in those terms.

“History tells us that parties in the first election their candidate becomes president don’t do well. So I think there is a concern for history right now,” he said, admitting that he had heard the thought. “Add to that that the senator was appointed, not elected, and you have an even deeper concern.”

On the other hand, now Gillibrand seems unlikely to have to defend her left flank in any major way during a primary, sure to save her problems going into the general. Her fundraising prowess is already the stuff of legend. With that taken care of, she could have increasingly clear sailing going in to 2010, and then on through election for a full term in 2012.

If not, though—if for reasons national, historical, economic or personal she loses next year—Israel, who two years ago was a fairly obscure congressman from outside the state’s main media market, will be in the wings. And until a chance arises, he will keep raising money, traveling the state and holding onto some extremely powerful favors, along with a list of legislative accomplishments that will no doubt be pushed forward.

As much as options seem foreclosed right now, things could change very quickly. Stranger things have happened to the man whom his junior senator, the Democratic majority, the White House chief of staff and the president himself all needed to very suddenly get out of the way.

“Just as a phone call from the president and a decision not to pursue a primary was unpredictable,” he said, thinking back on what he had just been through, “just as unpredictable could be a future opportunity where the earth, the moon and the stars are in the proper alignment.”

Just weeks ago, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Nassau) was speaking in definitive, confident terms about her ability to win a primary against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D). By then, though, her plan seemed to be working: she had softened the ground for other people to make the race, and McCarthy, who desperately did not want to run herself, was at peace.

But with Obama and the White House now aligned against Gillibrand having a primary and urging Rep. Steve Israel (D-Suffolk), McCarthy’s preferred choice, out of the race, she avoided the same kind of strong language.

“I don’t know whether I could beat her. I honestly don’t know that,” she said, adding that while she understood that Israel had no choice but to follow what the president said, “I do believe, as far as democracy goes, if someone wants to run against her, they should be allowed to run against her.”

Asked whether the news of Israel’s and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s (D) withdrawals had prompted her to begin preparing a more active candidacy to ensure Gillibrand did not go through the primary unchallenged, McCarthy said only, “I am preparing to raise a lot of money.”

A few hours before Israel’s conversation with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that resulted in his decision to leave the race, McCarthy took an opening at a press conference on new proposed gun legislation to tear into Gillibrand’s moderating of once hard-line gun rights stances.

“This was a strictly political move in my opinion,” she said, adding that she “would prefer someone who represented New York State has more values on protecting what the majority of New Yorkers believe in.” At the press conference, McCarthy indicated that Gillibrand’s movement to a new position was not enough for her.

She is still holding out hope that Rep. Carolyn Maloney or Suffolk Legislature Majority Leader Jon Copper will run. But with the weight of the White House now behind the junior senator, McCarthy backtracked slightly, setting a different measure of victory.

“The people who know me,” she said, “know that when I’m pushed against a wall, I come out fighting. And that’s what I’ll continue to do. But in many ways, I know that I already won because she’s changed her opinions certainly on every other issue because she knows I’m always looking over her shoulder.”

However, she said, that does not mean her candidacy against Gillibrand is dead, too.

“I want my name out there,” she said. “Yes I do. Yes I do.”

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