DCCC Chairman Israel: ‘I’m Rahm Emanuel without the curse words’

To help Democrats win back control of the House, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) looks to emulate the leadership styles of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Joshua Chamberlain, a colonel for the Union Army during the Civil War.

From one, the new Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chairman takes advice on the mechanics of campaigning; from the other, he gets his inspiration.

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Schumer has already talked to Israel about candidate recruitment — a hallmark of the senator’s successful tenure as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — not even letting the State of the Union address stop him from asking about one of his favorite topics. 

Walking into the House chamber Tuesday night behind President Obama, Schumer, with his arm on Israel’s shoulder, leaned in and asked, “How’s the recruiting going?”

“That’s how Chuck wins,” Israel told The Hill, after doing a spot-on impersonation of his fellow New Yorker’s accent. “It’s the mechanics, and that’s critically important to us as well.”

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said that aspect of the job shouldn’t be difficult for Israel.

“Something else that helps when you’re DCCC chair — people really like him,” Weiner said. “It’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t like Steve Israel.”

Weiner noted of Israel: “He is Schumer-esque in the level of energy that he has. And the single-mindedness that he has.”

Israel, 52, took the job after Democrats lost a record 63 seats in the 2010 election and, with them, control of the lower chamber. And while most observers see his task of winning back the House as Herculean in nature, Israel was enthusiastic about it from the start.

He’s already made a handful of recruiting trips to court potential candidates, including in Arizona and Illinois, where Democrats have as many as eight targets.

But to win the 25 seats necessary to retake the chamber, Israel is eyeing the 61 Republican-held districts that President Obama carried in 2008. Among those seats, 14 went for both Obama in 2008 and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential race.

The districts are held by a mixture of freshmen and veteran GOP lawmakers, but, to Israel, it doesn’t matter how long the Republicans have been there.

“We start with those 14 seats,” said Israel. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a [committee] chairman or not. We’re not going to be distracted by personalities. It’s going to be driven by the numbers, driven by our message, driven by our ability to mobilize.”

Asked how often he talks to Democrats who lost close races in 2010 and are weighing bids again in 2012, Israel said emphatically, “Every day.”

On his way to this past weekend’s House Democratic retreat in Maryland, Israel held a conference call with a dozen former members who might try to win their seats back next year.

“We talk to them about what we’re doing here, what they’re doing there and we feed intel back and forth,” he said. “The majority of the members who lost are engaged, they’re interested and they’re keeping the door open to varying degrees.”

Israel admits that fundraising in a presidential year and the looming redistricting process, where Republicans are seen as having an advantage, are two of the major challenges that lie ahead. 

Dozens of former members, potential recruits and even some current lawmakers who might be weighing retirement would rather wait to see what their district lines end up looking like before committing to anything.

“There’s no question it’s going to be tougher to raise the resources,” said Israel. But he rebuffed the notion that Republicans will be able to translate their 2010 anti-Pelosi theme into success again next year.

“Voters are going to be thinking about John Boehner, Eric Cantor, outsourcing, healthcare hypocrisy, two members who missed their swearing-in because they were violating House ethics rules,” he said. “That’s going to be the framing. It’s not going to be Nancy Pelosi or Steny Hoyer or Steve Israel.”

He also sees opportunity for Democrats in the tension between the GOP leadership and the Tea Party, a rift that Israel predicted will only grow over the next year.

“They have a serious strategic problem, which is that when they cater to the base, they lose independents,” he said. “Then when they try to resonate with independents, they lose their base.”

Going into a presidential campaign cycle, Israel has made a point of being in regular contact with the White House, despite not always being on rosy terms with the administration.

White House officials became concerned in 2009 when he was poised to wage a primary challenge against newly appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Officials were worried a bruising primary could lead to Republicans capturing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s former seat.



The president called Israel directly to convince him not to run, and Israel says there’s now a cordial relationship between his office and the administration.


In fact, Israel said, he’s strategized with White House officials at least three times over the past month and will soon be meeting with the new chief of staff, Bill Daley.

On a personal level, Israel describes himself as a cross between his DCCC predecessors.

“I’ve told people if you were to cross-breed Rahm Emanuel with Chris Van Hollen, you’d probably get me,” Israel said. “I’m Rahm Emanuel without the curse words.” He paused. “Sometimes.”

The six-term lawmaker, a Civil War historian, is known in the Democratic Caucus as an authority on the war, and he regularly leads battlefield tours.

“That knowledge, that rather intimate knowledge of the Civil War — the strategies involved in that four-year conflict — probably serve him well in understanding both the strategic goals and the tactical methods necessary to achieve those strategic goals,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a fellow Civil War aficionado.

Hanging prominently in Israel’s office at the DCCC is a framed picture of Col. Chamberlain brandishing a bayonet at the Battle of Gettysburg. Israel invokes Chamberlain’s story as a motivator in meetings with potential recruits. He also brings every potential recruit a copy of his book, Charge! History’s Greatest Military Speeches.

Tasked with guarding the Union Army’s left flank in one of the war’s most crucial battles, Chamberlain led a bayonet charge after Union soldiers ran out of ammo. The flank held — a large part of the reason the Union Army won at Gettysburg.

“This hangs intentionally over here,” Israel said of the painting. “It proves the point that willpower is more important than firepower, and that’s what this place is all about.”