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Steve Israel: A Door Closes, a Window Opens?

New York Rep. Steve Israel is looking for a new gig after passing on the New York Senate race. Photo by Chip Somodevilla of Getty Images

In politics, sometimes a step back can eventually lead to two steps forward.

New York Rep. Steve Israel (D) is hoping that axiom is true of his own career, which, until a few weeks ago was heading toward a challenge to appointed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in 2010.

"I had an announcement planned, a Web site designed, the money raised and the polling completed," said Israel in a recent interview with the Fix as part of our "Rising" series that looks at politicians to watch in the coming years.

The Rising

Then, at exit 42 of the Northern State Parkway on Long Island -- Israel remembers the moment vividly -- he fielded a call from President Obama asking him not to run.

"I wouldn't have put it aside without an appeal from the president," explained Israel of his Senate bid. "It's not that difficult to suspend your plans when the president of the United States asks you to do so."

And so, Israel backed down -- leaving Gillibrand as the strong favorite to be the Democratic and nominee and himself with no obvious path to statewide office in the foreseeable future.

What then does the future hold for Israel, elected in 2000 in one of the most competitive seats in the country -- it was previously held by Rep. Rick Lazio (R) -- but now firmly entrenched and looking for new horizons?

If Israel has anything to do with it, he will play a far larger role in House Democrats' efforts to further expand their majority next November. He has been named the head of recruiting for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2010 election cycle.

Israel already has one major recruiting success under his belt.

As Israel tells it, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) called him on his cell phone shortly after Gov. David Paterson (D) announced that Gillibrand was the next Senator from New York and asked him to be the lead recruiter for the seat she was vacating.

The next day Israel was driving on the New York State Thruway, headed up to Albany to try to find a candidate for a seat where registered Democrats were outnumbered by 71,000 and where Republicans had quickly united behind state Assemblyman Joe Tedisco.

The candidate he found -- venture capitalist Scott Murphy -- went on to win the 20th district special election by a few hundred votes, a victory that robbed Republicans of much-needed momentum early in the election cycle.

"I love doing that," said Israel. "I love travel, love politics, love turning red seats blue."

Although Israel makes no mention of it, it's hard not to see his work on behalf of Murphy -- as well as other successful New York Democrats (Eric Massa, Mike McMahon, Dan Maffei) -- as a sign to party leadership that he would be very interested in chairing the DCCC after Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) steps aside after the 2010 cycle.

Israel's fate lies in the hands of Pelosi, since the Speaker appoints the DCCC chair.

And, that could be a problem as Israel's relationship with the California Democrat has been less than stellar in the past; he backed Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.) over Pelosi for House Minority Whip in October 2001, a move that "burned some bridges" according to the Almanac of American Politics.

Israel was effusive in his praise of Pelosi in our interview, calling himself a "huge fan" of hers and adding: "I am anxious to perform whatever mission she asks me to perform."

While Pelosi will make the ultimate decision, Israel's willingness to step aside in the Senate race has ensured that two very important people -- President Obama and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel -- owe him one.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 1, 2009; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  The Rising  
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The Fix's favorite metaphor for Republicans running statewide in New Jersey is that of "Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown" (WP 2/4/09). Anyone know who came up with this analogy? Jennifer Duffy ? Paul Begala (CNN, 11/7/06) ? It's a good one.

Posted by: benvk1 | June 3, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Ok, a comment regarding this article: If I was Steve Israel, I would have chosen to run for the Senate seat as opposed to being a recruiter of candidates in the House. The Democratic nominee in NY would be the odds-on-favorite to win the election regardless of how tough the primary would be. Unless there is some dark horse that no one is aware of, the only Republican with any viability (who would actually want to be Senator --- let us not forget that Giulani and many others want to be governor) is former Governor Pataki. Secondly, none of these machinations will completely ensure that there won't be a primary; isn't Congresswoman McCarthy running? Finally, while President Obama and Chief of Staff Emanuel have a lot of strengths, political loyalty doesn't appear to be among them. Unlike Clinton and Bush II, I haven't seen many prominent politicos who help Obama become president who have later been the beneficiaries of the president's largese. For instance, Sen. John Kerry made Obama key-note speaker when in 2004 giving tremendous exposure to Obama when he was an obsure Illinois state legislator. When Obama became president, it was widely expected that Kerry would become secretary of state. That didn't happen. The position went to Obama's arch-nemesis in the primaries, Hillary Clinton instead. The same thing happened to Governor Tim Kaine who was passed over for the vice presidency for Joe Biden, a rival who had sharp criticism reserved for Obama in the primaries. Do you see a pattern here? Thus, I seriously doubt Obama's "owing Israel" a solid will ultimately lead to tangiable benefits for Israel.

Posted by: Jay20 | June 1, 2009 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Coleman just can't seem to deal rationally with the fact that Franken got more votes. With his prayer scrolls under his arm every morning, he bonk-bonk-bonks to God and asks for guidance, and apparently he hears God telling him to go on fighting even though he doesn't have a chance. A new low for the Sore Loser side of the GOP

Posted by: chrisfox8 | June 1, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of Coleman, the first reviews of this AM's arguments in Coleman v Franken are appearing. Try:

So far, the perception is that the court is skeptical of former Sen Coleman's arguments.

Posted by: bsimon1 | June 1, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Coleman too thanks for making the Republicans a National Discrace.

Posted by: mattadamsdietmanager1014 | June 1, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Rest in Peace (RIP) Republicans!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! oh thanks RUSH,CHENEY,NEWT,HANNITY,BECK,O'RIELLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: mattadamsdietmanager1014 | June 1, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

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