As retirement excuses go, Steve Israel’s is novel … figuratively and literally. The rapid rise of Israel in House Democratic circles will come to an abrupt end in 2016, as the Long Island Democrat wants to trade writing legislation for writing fiction.
Today, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) announced that he will not seek reelection this November. He released the following statement:
“Nearly 16 years ago, I was honored to take the oath of office and stand on the House Floor for the first time. Now, I’ve decided to leave the House in 2017. I hope to continue to be involved in public service, but it is time for me to pursue new passions and develop new interests, mainly spend more time writing my second novel.
“I considered this decision deeply, but ultimately, I want to be a team player and ensure that my district, which is the only competitive district in House Democratic Leadership, remains in the hands of Democrats when I leave. The 2016 presidential turnout will help assure that. We’ve fought too hard for everyday Americans and against special interests to risk it.[“]
It seems a bit churlish to question an offered explanation to a retirement from Congress. After all, we appreciate the decision by an officeholder not to make it a lifetime occupation, especially (but not exclusively) with Democrats. Israel has certainly given enough of his time to this form of public service, having first taken office in 2001; he will have served eight terms in Congress. At age 58, though, he comes up short for a Congressional pension with less than twenty years served.
Still, something about this seems odd. Writing a book certainly takes up a significant amount of time, and Israel’s work in Congress might not leave a lot of time for book development. But it’s not impossible to write fiction while serving in Congress; Israel did it with his first novel The Global War on Morris, which came out a year ago and was presumably written while running the DCCC too, a role he gave up shortly after its release. Barbara Boxer also wrote a political novel while juggling her Senate duties, and others routinely write non-fiction books to extend their political arguments.
Israel’s star has risen in the Democratic caucus as a protege of Nancy Pelosi, and her upcoming retirement as caucus leader should give openings for Israel and others to move up. She set him up for future promotion in a role designed for Israel, the chair of policy and communications. Instead, just as the opportunity to move up appears … Israel decides to check out. That makes a decade or more of ambition and effort suddenly moot. Hmmm.
What are the prospects for Republicans? The Cook report for NY-03 has it as evenly split between registered Democrats and Republicans, but it has given Israel wide margins of victory thanks to a large contingent of independents and Israel’s ability to turn them out. Israel claimed in his statement that a presidential-cycle turnout would guarantee the seat would remain Democratic, but Israel actually outperformed Barack Obama in both elections in the district; Obama only won in 2012 by three points, while Israel won by 9. It looks more like Israel got Obama over the line than the other way around. Plus, George Bush won the district in 2004, which means it’s not necessarily a Democratic slam dunk in 2016 without Israel or Obama on the ticket.
That doesn’t make it a slam dunk for Republicans in either the House or presidential race, either. It’s not out of reach, but in both cases it will take a very good candidate to turn out independents that lean toward the GOP in greater numbers. Israel’s retirement, as puzzling as it is, gives Republicans an opportunity they probably never saw coming.