Rep. Peter King’s Washington, D.C., office is stuffed full of New York memorabilia. Every wall is covered with framed photos of actors and baseball players (King’s allegiance lies with the Mets). In terms of décor, the Long Island congressman’s office is reminiscent of one of the Big Apple’s touristy delis.
There’s one thing about his office that makes it unusual for a New York politician: It belongs to a Republican. As the 111th Congress begins, New York’s congressional delegation has 29 seats. Only three belong to Republicans (one is vacant), and King’s district is the only Republican district in the entire southern half of the state, which encompasses more than three-quarters of the population.
“It’s about 300 miles before you get to the next Republican district,” observes King, now in his ninth term. Even more remarkable, his political career is thriving. In 2006 and 2008 he beat his Democratic opponents by 12 and 28 points, respectively, in election cycles that saw Republicans take heavy losses nationally.
Even King is surprised by the level of support he’s received. “In the last two elections, my hard reelect numbers are as high as they’ve ever been,” he says, employing the political term that describes the percentage of voters who say they’ll vote for a candidate regardless of his opponent.
His profile in New York, as well as nationally, is also on the rise. One of the more intriguing subplots to Caroline Kennedy’s failed bid to be appointed to Hillary Clinton’s vacated Senate seat was that King was her presumed opponent in 2010. With Kennedy out, King says he’s still tentatively interested in running against Kirsten Gillibrand, the one-term congresswoman from upstate who eventually received the appointment.
In fact, while he was still deciding whom to appoint to the Senate seat, New York’s Democratic governor, David Paterson, floated King’s name. “I didn’t rule out any Republicans; they ruled me out because they never asked,” Paterson told reporters. “Peter King and I are great friends. We go to dinner often. He should have called.”
Asked about Paterson’s comments, King laughs and replies, “We put a call in to his office.” He explains that he met Paterson in the green room of a television show over a decade ago. They’ve been friends ever since.
King maintains remarkably good relations with his Democratic colleagues. Former New York mayor Ed Koch practically tumbles over himself to praise the congressman. “I think he’s one of the greatest public servants and we’re lucky to have him in New York. I’ve supported him, crossing party lines, for his position as a member of Congress, and he’s done a superb job there,” Koch raves. “He is a person I can only say good things about.”
Put simply, the obvious question is: What is King doing right at a time when northeastern Republicans are an endangered species and partisan acrimony threatens to engulf national politics?
Some aspects of King are inimitable. His retail political skill comes naturally; he has a genial nature and a mercurial mind, both hallmarks of his proud Irish heritage. The son of a police officer, raised in Queens, King has developed an intuitive grasp of New York’s labyrinthine politics and thrives in the state’s hostile media environment.
King’s success is hard-earned. He slugged it out in the trenches of local politics for over two decades before rising to the national stage. After graduating from Notre Dame Law School in 1968, he went to work for the Nassau County district attorney’s office. In 1977 he won his first elected position, on the Hempstead town council, with the help of Long Island’s once-formidable Republican machine. Following that, he went on to win three consecutive terms as the Nassau County comptroller. King had an unusual amount of political experience under his belt, as well as a reputation as an independent thinker, long before he ran for Congress in 1992.
Through a combination of shrewdness and principle, King appears to have found exactly the right political balance to prosper as a blue-state Republican: “I call myself a blue-collar conservative, so on key conservative issues I never change. I’m strong on defense, I supported the war in Iraq all the way, supported the surge, I’m very strong on homeland security, Islamic terrorism. I’m pro-life; on all the social issues I’m 100 percent conservative.”
#page# Economically, King diverges from conservatism in ways that help strengthen his blue-collar appeal: “I have a very strong relationship with the building-trades unions. On issues like Davis-Bacon, I would vote with the unions. So did Ronald Reagan for that matter,” King says, referring to the Depression-era “prevailing wage” law that’s a cornerstone of union legislation. Indeed, even the Teamsters union — usually an enemy of Republicans — has praised and supported King.
When King commits to an issue politically, he’s tenacious. He is perhaps best known as a congressional advocate of homeland-security measures. When the House Committee on Homeland Security was established in the wake of September 11, King lobbied hard to be on the committee before taking over the chairmanship in 2005. (He remains the ranking member.) In 2006, the Bush administration tried to slash New York’s homeland-security funding by 40 percent. King said the cuts amounted to “declar[ing] war on New York,” and he was instrumental in making sure his state received the second-largest homeland-security funding increase the next year, after Washington, D.C. New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly calls King “our fiercest defender.” King, one of whose hobbies is writing novels, is so obsessed with homeland security that Vale of Tears, the latest of the three page-turners he’s written, is about a congressman named Sean Cross who valiantly attempts to head off an Islamic terrorist attack.
“I’ve been very aggressive about what I believe in. I just think it’s easier to get it out there and have people agree or disagree rather than spending a few months trying to make my message sound better than it is or try and disguise it somehow,” King says. “Even in ’06 during the worst of times, I never backed off supporting the necessity of the war in Iraq. I never backed off supporting the Patriot Act, FISA, Guantanamo, interrogations — all of that I believe is absolutely essential.”
King’s outspokenness occasionally gets him in trouble. In 2007 he ignited a firestorm when he was quoted as saying America had “too many mosques.” (King says he was referring to the number of mosques that don’t cooperate with the FBI in fighting Islamist terrorism.) His fierce support of Irish nationalism — his uncle fought in the Tan War — has occasionally aligned him with the some of more unsavory proponents of that cause, though in recent years he has toned down his support for the Irish Republican Army.
Yet despite the occasional stumble, few Republicans have his deft touch with the media. To say King doesn’t shy away from the press would be an understatement; Politico.com calls him a “quote machine.” And he knows where to find a congenial outlet: “I try and take advantage of television and radio as much as I can to go over the heads of the print media, especially since I have [the liberal] Newsday as the main paper in my district.”
King is dismayed by the criticism he endures from Republicans who don’t share his particular Irish Catholic view of the world. “I believe in original sin and that people have human failings. That also is the basis of conservatism and why you don’t want to give too much power to any one person or entity, because we have these failings,” he says. At the same time, he cautions against “always trying to sound self-righteous,” and here King practices what he preaches. Last year, when fellow New York Republican congressman Vito Fossella was arrested for drunk driving and later revealed to have a mistress and love child, King penned an op-ed for the New York Post defending Fossella’s record as a public servant and excoriating the media for continuing to push the story after Fossella announced he would not seek reelection. “We can be for very strong social values, be very pro-life, be very supportive of the military, and not be always be passing judgment on others with a moral tone,” he says.
For King, a lack of empathy explains why Republicans are out of touch on any number of issues. “I think we need to find ways to identify with people’s everyday life from a conservative point of view,” he points out. “Often I see Republicans go on television and it’s the same talking points and it’s a Washington-oriented or — and I don’t mean to start a civil war or anything — maybe it’s focused more on what people in rural areas are focused on, as opposed to the Northeast.”
Perhaps King’s diagnosis of the GOP’s ills isn’t unique. But his proven ability to fly the Republican flag in challenging circumstances certainly makes him a rarity, as does his optimism. “I think that the New York that elected Jim Buckley and voted for Ronald Reagan twice and elected D’Amato and Pataki is still there. I know the demographics are changing, but close to, if not more than, 50 percent of the state could vote ‘blue-collar conservative.’”
Should King decide to run for the Senate in 2010, it won’t just be his own hopes — it may well be the hopes of his entire party — that get put to the test.