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Israel focuses on middle class, partisanship

Steve Israel, Democratic incumbent candidate for the 3rd

Steve Israel, Democratic incumbent candidate for the 3rd Congressional District. (Aug. 8, 2012) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

Rep. Steve Israel has crafted a reputation of a pragmatic, moderate Democrat who tries to get beyond the partisan bickering in Congress to find solutions.

Republican foes say his voting record belies the image. They also say Israel's position as the head of the House Democrats' campaign committee keeps him focused on elections in many states -- at the expense of Long Island.

The incumbent, running this fall for a seventh term, rejects that notion.

"Take a look at my schedule. They're just plain wrong," Israel (D-Huntington) said of his critics. "Talk to the vets I serve and they'll tell you I'm here every day. Talk to the people who I worked with on the Long Island Sound [preservation plan], they'll tell you I'm delivering here in the district."

But it's a whole new district for Israel this time, thanks to the decennial redistricting process. Ninety percent of the voters in his old district were in Suffolk County. The new district runs along the North Shore, and just 39 percent of its voters are from Suffolk. Now 45 percent are from Nassau County and 16 percent, Queens.

Israel is running against Republican Stephen Labate of Deer Park, who became involved in politics three years ago with a tea party group. Libertarian candidate Michael McDermott and Constitution Party candidate Anthony Tolda also are in the race.

Israel, 54, says he's Long Island middle class through and through. He grew up in Levittown, son of a traveling salesman. He attended Nassau Community College "because we couldn't afford a four-year university at that point," though he went on to graduate from The George Washington University in 1982.

Israel worked as a congressional aide and, at age 29, became a deputy to Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin in 1987.

"Even back then, he had a level of maturity and interest in politics that was unusual," Halpin said. "He had a very good way about it, whether he had to deliver bad news or muster votes or bring divergent points of view together. He was very good at the 'small p' of politics."

Israel served on the Huntington Town Board from 1993 to 2000..

Town Supervisor Frank Petrone, a Democrat, said Israel has a "real bipartisan" spirit and a "focus on working together to create things, not to tear things down." Petrone said Israel, as a congressman, created the consensus necessary for a project to rebuild the seawall in Asharoken two years ago.

Israel first won election to the House in 2000. He once formed the "Center Aisle Caucus" to promote civility in Congress, joined the Blue Dog Caucus of moderate Democrats, and has become a leading voice on veterans' affairs. A military history buff, he edited the 2007 book "Charge! History's Greatest Military Speeches."

"Republicans used to always say they were the only ones who cared about veterans," said James Gaughran, head of the Suffolk County Water Authority and an Israel ally. "I think he's turned that around on a national level."

Labate says Israel talks about working with Republicans but doesn't vote that way.

"I find it ironic that somebody speaking about being bipartisan and looking for compromise has a 93 percent voting record with" his own party, Labate said.

Israel counters that Labate has signed the Grover Norquist pledge to never raise taxes, even if they're offset by spending cuts.

"That extremism and absolutism is not the right prescription for the middle class," Israel said.

Labate said he signed the pledge because, "I do not believe you can raise taxes in this type of economic environment."

Israel supported President Barack Obama's health care law because, he says, it eliminates lifetime caps on insurance benefits and "makes sure that a woman with breast cancer can't be denied health insurance because breast cancer is a 'pre-existing condition.' "

But Israel opposes the president's position on eliminating Bush-era tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 annually because "$250,000 doesn't make you rich on the North Shore of Long Island."

In 2011, Israel became head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, putting him in charge of Democrats' efforts to regain the House. That's put him in the national headlines and earned him a speaking role at the party's national convention. It's also subjected him to criticism.

"Steve Israel is out running around the country raising money for Democrats instead of being here listening to his constituents," said Suffolk County GOP chairman John Jay LaValle.

"I'm not running on national politics but my own record of finding solutions back home," Israel countered. "But I will say that having a national role does give me more clout in fighting for my constituents."

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