Years after U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Long Island) first spent much time in Queens, newly drawn congressional maps are sending him back to his childhood roots.
“I spent every Sunday of my youth in Queens,” Israel, who is running for re-election in a district that will now include parts of northeast Queens, said during a sit-down interview with the Chronicle on Thursday. “My grandparents lived in Flushing. I feel I have Queens in my blood.”
A panel of federal judges in March approved new political boundaries for New York’s Congressional districts, which added Bay Terrace, Beechhurst, Whitestone, Douglaston, Little Neck, Glen Oaks, New Hyde Park, Floral Park and Whitestone to the district for which Israel is vying.
He now represents the 2nd Congressional District, made up solely of neighborhoods in Suffolk and Nassau, and is running to represent the newly drawn 3rd CD.
Republican Stephen LaBate, a Deer Park resident who graduated from St. John’s University in Jamaica, is challenging Israel.
During Israel’s interview with the Queens Chronicle, the congressman said he began meeting with civic leaders, borough politicians and other Queens residents immediately after the judges approved the new lines.
“I said, ‘Gary, I’ve got a lot to learn,’” Israel said in reference to U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens, Long Island), who recently announced he would not be running again.
After being drawn into the new 3rd Congressional District, Ackerman announced he would not run against Israel, nor would he make another bid for the 6th Congressional District, which will represent much of northern and Central Queens.
“It won’t be very long until people in Queens say, ‘We can’t get rid of this guy,’” Israel joked about outselves.
Describing himself as leaning right on issues regarding Israel and national security, and left on civil rights, gay rights, education and the environment, Israel was tapped by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2012. Now the fifth highest-ranking Democrat in the House, Israel said he has particularly focused on veterans’ issues, infrastructure and middle-class economics while in Congress.
His focus on economics has not always landed him in the same camp as President Obama, Israel said.
“The president said, ‘We should raise taxes on the rich,’ and I said, ‘Fair enough, but what’s your definition of rich?’” Israel said. “He says $250,000. Two hundred fifty thousand dollars may make you rich in Nebraska, but $250,000 does not make you rich in Little Neck, where you’re paying the highest cost of living in America.”
As for other Queens issues, Israel said he would likely not be a fan of expanding JFK Airport’s runways into the Jamaica Bay.
“I would lean against anything I’d consider to be potentially degrading to the environment,” Israel said.
On a more international scale, Israel said he believes the United States “should use all the tools in our tool box” when it comes to addressing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including keeping the possibility of a military strike on the table.
“Right now the sanctions are crippling the Iranian regime,” Israel said. “We need to continue applying those sanctions.”
Israel knows he has to gain the trust of Queens voters and that’s why he’s seeking their opinions on issues facing their neighborhoods. “I have to earn the confidence of the people by listening to them and hearing their priorities,” he said. “So far, I’m hearing about the Whitestone Armory and tax assessments.”
Residents of Northern Queens say the cost of renting the armory is prohibitive and may spell the end for a senior program there, and co-op and condominum owners remain angry at the city’s hikes in property taxes.
Saying he has a work ethic “that can’t be beat,” Israel has promised if elected he will have an office for constituents either in Queens or in western Nassau County. “I want it to be a convenient drive,” he said.
He remains a strong advocate for veterans’ rights and although his new district does not take in the St. Albans Veterans Facility, he said if Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) asked him for assistance, “I’d consider it a labor of love.”
He said it’s vital to provide good healthcare for veterans and “just now we’re catching up with the needs of the Vietnam veterans.”
On education, Israel said that the United States ranks 17th in the world and needs to go in a different direction. “We should end the subsidy to oil companies and use that money for kids in schools,” he said.
He believes that city teachers should be given more creative ability. “Now it’s one size fits all,” Israel said. “We should give kids the basics, but let them pursue what’s fulfilling to them.”
Israel, 53, was first sworn into Congress in 2001.
Liz Rhoades contributed to this story