Pete King is now the most important Republican in New York. Does he care?
By Andrew J. Hawkins
Congressman Sean Cross, a Long Island Republican, is something of a lone wolf.
He is foul-mouthed, intensely partisan and prone to gung-ho displays of patriotism. He is the type that would sooner run to the scene of a terrorist attack than run away. His in-depth, encyclopedic knowledge of terrorist cells in both Ireland and the Middle East makes him a powerful asset to mayors, governors and presidents alike.
He is in demand. He is fearless. He is Peter King's fictional creation, and alter-ego.
Between 1999 and 2003, King wrote a trilogy of books--Terrible Beauty, Deliver Us From Evil and Vale Of Tears--starring Cross as the thinly veiled King, part-action hero, part-congressman. King said he drew on his own experiences, from the Sept. 11 attacks to his dealings with the Irish Republican Army, when writing the series. They are compelling, if stiffly written, potboilers, filled with grisly murders and real-life figures like David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush.
In a way, its easy to view Cross as King's idealized version of himself, bouncing between New York and Washington with his sidekick, an ex-cop named Sully, helping bring down the bad guys. But King sees the books as a benign form of propaganda, a stylistic way of spinning his own message.
"A historical novel is, in many ways, an easy way out," King said. "You don't have to do all the research for every fact It gives you a lot more opportunity to get your point across without having to argue in any logical way. You do it through characters."
He added, "And then, I'm able to kill people I don't like."
That is not so much his problem these days in Washington. At the end of November, outside the large conference room where John Boehner and the steering committee would listen to their quick speeches before doling out the chairmanship, King and his fellow House Republicans were still thumping with the excitement of their midterm wins. They complimented each other's weight and hair, gabbed about hunting and how to win over Latino voters. But more than anything, like football players patting rumps in a locker room, they compared and congratulated each other on their press clips.
Darrell Issa, the California Republican most famous for investigating ACORN and prompting the gubernatorial recount that elected Arnold Schwarzenegger, got a cheer for his recent front-page profile in the New York Times. But most of the praise was saved for King, who had just finished up a morning news blitz as the returning Homeland Security Committee chair talking tough about WikiLeaks, which he deemed worse than a physical attack on the country.
On the radio, Sean Hannity spent several minutes coddling King, bragging about the fact that he had just moved to the congressman's Nassau-Suffolk district.
King, who got 75 percent against a high school social studies teacher, deadpanned that Hannity's vote put him over the top.
Hannity and House Republicans are not the only ones paying attention to King these days. Calls have been coming in from James Brennan, the White House deputy national security advisor, and from President Obama himself.
Things are looking good back home, too. Just two years ago, King found himself one of only two Republicans left in the delegation, along with Chris Lee, the unassuming freshman who lives closer to Ontario than Nassau--"the King and I" period for the New York GOP, Lee jokes. Democrats in Albany looked poised to redistrict King into oblivion.
Then this year, Republicans picked up six more congressional seats and took back the State Senate. The excitement is tempered by reality, the unspoken but acknowledged fact that in a state as blue as New York, the chances of the comeback lasting are precarious at best. King is the new Charlie Rangel, with all its accompanying perks and pitfalls.
When the time comes, he will be asked to weigh in on state party decisions, to raise a little cash and perform many of the other duties the senior Republican in the state is usually expected to perform. Rangel did it when he was at the top of his game, doling out the windfall from his annual birthday fundraiser to his fellow Democrats like party favors.
King, though, has much less experience with this kind of party-building. He is an admittedly so-so fundraiser, is far more interested in what is going on in Islamabad than Poughkeepsie, and has no desire to be referred to as the dean of anything.
"I'll pass on that," he says.
He tries to play down the significance of his role as senior Republican in the state.
"Believe me, these things come in waves. It comes and goes," he said earlier, sitting in the front seat of an aide's SUV as he is driven all of four blocks from the Hart Office Building to the Capitol. "I remember when they said that about Nelson Rockefeller. Look how far the state has come, from Nelson Rockefeller to Pete King?"
He may not have a choice. The pressure is high for Republicans to prove that 2010 was not just a fluke election year, and that they can retain the seats they gained and, if possible, run a statewide candidate that can actually win. King himself will not close out on a statewide run himself, choosing to keep his trial balloon fully inflated and floating. That balloon has been floating for a while now, though. And many Republicans have long since given up on the idea of Pete King as a galvanizing force in the state.
"He's always been a bit of a lone wolf," said one state Republican operative who spoke anonymously, to avoid angering King. "He chooses his own issues. It's always been foreign policy, Irish issues, terrorism issues. But he's never been a party-building guy. That's not his M.O. at all."
Sean Cross is a man of action and little introspection who rarely even gets a physical description from his creator. King is slightly more complicated, a mélange of many different Republican archetypes. Like Carl Paladino, he has a knack for making headlines--he told Politico back in 2007 that there are "too many mosques in this country," but later said his comments were taken out of context--but unlike Paladino, he is not so sloppy as to provide a paper (or e-mail) trail for his opponents to exploit. If anything, despite his outspokenness, he can be quite sensitive about people calling him out for criticizing the Muslim community.
"I can show all these difference instances when information was known to Muslim leaders and they didn't go to the police," King said. "It makes for awkward moments. I think it needs to be addressed. Not just so people yell back that I'm a bigot."
Like Rick Lazio, King can be counted on to play nice with the state's Democratic delegation. Given the chance to cast a vote earlier in December to censure Charlie Rangel, King voted "no," citing his long relationship with the Harlem congressman and his belief that the vote would set a bad precedent. And there are almost as many photos of Barack Obama on the wall of King's D.C. office as there are of George W. Bush.
He is not seen as a staunch, tea party-friendly politician, but is well liked by many in the movement for his hard-line stance against immigration and terrorism. There is no mistaking King for a left-of-center Republican. He is as pro-gun, pro-tax-cut and anti-abortion as many of his colleagues.
How that will translate, as King gets comfortable in his new role as dean of the delegation, is anyone's guess. The six freshman Republicans will be looking to King for help with their re-elections, help getting around the capital, help navigating the legislative process.
"Pete is not bashful," said Lee, now entering his second term. "He does not tap dance around the issues. He's gone up against the Republican leadership from time to time."
Tom Reed, just elected to replace disgraced ex-Rep. Eric Massa, said he admired King's bluntness, but not necessarily to the point of emulating his style.
"I try to be much more reserved," Reed said. "I'm definitely cautious. I recognize words have significant impact when coming out of my mouth, as a congressman."
On Nov. 18, all the freshman members (except Reed, who was recovering from a medical emergency and sent his chief of staff) met over coffee and doughnuts in King's D.C. office. Even Randy Altschuler was there, back when his recount effort against Rep. Tim Bishop still had life. The one-hour event was an opportunity for the new members to meet one another and strategize for the coming session. Rangel's censure was coming up, as was an important vote on the Bush tax cuts.
This kind of meeting is new for King. He used to boycott the New York delegation meetings, complaining they were more Democratic pep rallies than anything else.
It is unclear going forward, though, whether King will continue to keep the delegation meetings separated.
Some of the freshman Republicans got more than coffee and doughnuts (or even free copies of Vale of Tears, the last in the Sean Cross trilogy, released in 2003, which King keeps stacked in a closet). Richard Hanna, for one, got a "retire the debt" fundraiser hosted by King. And there is more coming.
Anthony Weiner, whose televised debates with King have all the flair and nuance of a round of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, said part of what makes King successful is his ability to trick far-right conservatives into thinking that he is one of them.
"He's done a pretty great job of convincing the entire Republican caucus he's as crazy as they are," he said. "He walks the Fox News walk, but I think he realizes that he's a member of Congress from a fairly liberal state."
Weiner predicted that the state's newly elected Republicans will be looking at tough re-elections ahead, which puts more pressure on King as the most immediately available senior member with access to political advice and top-dollar donors.
"If you think about the state, obviously you're going to have a State Senate leader who's going to be jousting all the time with the governor and the State Legislature," Weiner said. "Peter has a fairly clear field as the most important Republican in the state."
Nonetheless, King stayed largely to the sidelines while Dean Skelos and others fought to regain control of the chamber. For the most part, King kept his endorsement holstered, whipping it out occasionally to support less than viable contenders, like Bob Turner, who lost in a landslide to Weiner.
King was shocked Republicans did so well in New York this year. Naturally, he knew the wind was at their backs. But he never knew how strong it would turn out to be.
"I could have sat down and told you intellectually why we could have picked six, seven, eight seats," he said. "But to actually see it happen I thought we'd be lucky to get two or three."
This spring, King received a text message from Dick Morris, the veteran pollster and long-time advisor to Bill Clinton. At the time, the news was dominated by the almost daily appearance of candidates and pseudo-candidates declaring their intentions of running against Kirsten Gillibrand, the unelected junior senator. King himself had thrown his name out there, but made no serious move to get in the race, nor did he even form an exploratory committee to test the waters.
"You're never going to forgive yourself for the rest of your life," Morris' text read.
King saved the text.
Sure, he could have said "to hell with it" and ran against Gillibrand this year, he says. Everyone was telling him she was vulnerable, she had no name ID, no liberal base and no chance of winning re-election, especially with King in the race.
In the end, he ended his flirtation, banking on the possibility of retaking the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee, his declared passion.
"If it were Caroline Kennedy, I definitely would have done it, just for the nature of the race," he said. "The shanty Irish versus the lace curtain Irish."
But he keeps the rumors churning, refusing to close the door on a future run. And considering that no Republican candidate has won a statewide race in New York since George Pataki in 2002, there are some who believe that King stokes those rumors simply in the interest of self-service.
Democratic sources in Washington say that he simply does not have what it takes to go through with it, while Democrats back in Nassau snort derisively.
"When push comes to shove, he's consistently punked out," said one Nassau Democrat.
There may be a note of fear in some of their voices, knowing full well that King could capitalize on his public face and seniority to mount a credible run. Even some Republicans note that his frequent television appearances would allow him to tap into a national donor base, before admitting that he would struggle with name recognition north of Westchester.
After all, King has a history of putting his name out there, intimating that he might run against Hillary Clinton in 2000 before stepping aside and letting Rick Lazio fall on that grenade.
But despite the outward appearance of being disinterested in anything not related to homeland security, he says he plans on taking a more active role in state politics.
King says he is interested in rebuilding the state Republican Party in New York and re-branding it as a more grassroots, energetic movement. Of course, coming from a guy who does not gather his own petition signatures anymore and sometimes forgets the name of the county that borders Albany--Rensselaer, home of master Republican Joe Bruno--that kind of statement could ring somewhat hollow.
In the past, he has assailed the party leadership for losing touch with voters. He blasted ex-state GOP chair Bill Powers for botching Lazio's race against Clinton, which many Republicans chalked up as sour grapes. Today, he has harsh words for Ed Cox, the son-in-law of Richard Nixon, whose law firm King briefly worked at.
"He could have done a lot better, I think," King said. "I think we need a guy with grassroots political experience, someone who can build the party from the ground up."
The race against Tim Bishop, for instance, was botched by the fact that Cox could not find a candidate who grew up in the district, settling instead on his own son, who King said was doomed by rumors of backroom dealing.
For some Republicans, this kind of posturing coming from King seems false. North of Westchester, most Republicans would struggle to identify King, they say, let alone take his advice on who is qualified to run for which seat.
"He's not the political animal," said one Republican operative. "He's not the party guy."
King is nostalgic for the time when Powers, a Nassau Republican who was King's friend and sometimes rival, ran the party like a well-oiled machine. He really knew how to pull the levers, King says.
"Powers had the best approach," he said. "He was a county chair, he knew how to get petitions signed, get candidates interested He was able to build up the party from the ground up."
King is a big believer in organizational (read: machine) politics. He wrote his senior thesis defending Mayor Jimmy "Beau James" Walker and Tammany Hall.
"I'm a product of the Nassau Republican organization," he said, "which I make no apologies for."
But Powers is gone, retired as state chair almost a decade ago. Cox still has two years left in his term. Skelos, the incoming State Senate majority leader, will have his hands full with Andrew Cuomo and Sheldon Silver. George Pataki is raising cash with an eye on the White House. Republicans casting their eyes around the state in search of a strong leader to take the reins of the party and steer it to a brighter future may miss King, who will probably be in Washington, pouring over the latest national security briefing.
Asked if King sees himself as someone like Powers, who can engineer electoral victories and bring the state party back from the brink of obscurity, King slips back into self-deprecation.
"It's an opportunity, it's an obligation," he said. "These things can be quite fleeting in politics."
Besides, the memories of the last time he presented himself to voters as a statewide candidate, running against Bob Abrams for attorney general in 1986, are still too vivid. The result was ugly for King, who lost by a two-to-one margin. It was never retold in any of King's books. Sean Cross, after all, would never suffer so humiliating a defeat.
"Every time I drive through Forest Hills," he said, referring to a neighborhood in his native Queens, "I realize every one of these people took the time to come out and vote against me."