Rep. Nita Lowey grew up immersed in Jewish values. To this day, they inform the Bronx-born legislator’s decisions.
“We grew up with tzedakah, charity and helping others, with a strong sense of tikkun olam, making the world a better place,” said Lowey, a 24-year veteran of the House of Representatives who will be representing all of Rockland County in the redrawn 17th Congressional District come January. Lowey’s new district comprises a few towns in Rockland County that she already represented as part of the 18th district, the rest of the county, and parts of Westchester County.
She is also poised to assume one of the most powerful leadership positions in the House, as the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.
“It takes Rockland from the minor leagues and puts it in the major leagues in terms of prominence,” said Paul Adler, a former chairman of the Rockland County Democratic Committee, of Lowey’s ascent to such a leadership position. “The smallest county in New York now has the biggest presence in Congress.”
A shrewd political player, Lowey wields clout and earns respect for her political positions and her ability to work across the aisle. She attributes much of her values and her chutzpah to her Jewish upbringing. Her mother was an example of an active Jewish woman, who gave her time to her synagogue’s sisterhood, as well as to Hadassah.
“It is not surprising I would take all these values to work in Congress,” she said.
A notion of community service coupled with Jewish pride followed her as she took on the presidency of her class at Bronx Science High School. She then attended Mount Holyoke College, which she estimates was less than 10 percent Jewish at the time.
“When I got there, we had mandatory church services. They were not specific to any religion, but they were clearly church services,” said Lowey in a recent interview. “I found another Jewish woman and we organized Friday night services. I was not, how shall we say it, a usual attendee of services, but it got us out of Sunday services, and I felt I had to go, since I’d organized it.”
Strong on Israel and determined to keep the Jewish state’s interests on the front burner, Lowey campaigned hard during this election in Rockland County, with its large Jewish population. Whether throwing out the opening ball at Little League Games, touring Superstorm Sandy-ravaged parts of Piermont, or showing up at JCC events, Lowey was omnipresent. The effort paid off in a landslide victory over challenger Joe Carvin, with Lowey capturing 65 percent of the vote to Carvin’s 35 percent.
She has spent a good amount of time crafting a reputation as someone willing to work with members of the House’s Republican majority, using Israel as an issue with which to build consensus. She has worked so closely with Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), on the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, that the two have developed an “odd couple” reputation in an era marked more by factionalism than by cooperation.
According to Granger, when she first arrived on the subcommittee, Lowey approached her about working together on some issues. That working relationship turned into a friendship built on mutual respect.
“She’s probably not going to like this particularly, but she’s a very charming person,” said Granger with a laugh. “I say that in the best of ways. She’s a very warm person and I think other members have a hard time saying ‘no’ to Mrs. Lowey.”
But it is Lowey’s deep and longstanding contacts, both domestic and foreign, that make her effective and powerful, Granger said.
Lowey’s stand on Israel has been unwavering: that the Jewish state is the United State’s only democratic ally in the region and must be supported. Projects such as Iron Dome, the missile defense system that reportedly worked so well recently against Hamas’ missile attack on southern Israel, have been backed heavily with U.S. government investment and research, and remain good investments, she said.
Israel became a state when Lowey was a little over 10 years old, so it has always been “a part of who I am,” she said.
“The Israel-U.S. alliance is essential to the United States in a very troubled region,” she said. “I’m very proud of Israel, and the [U.S.-Israel] relationship is essential to Israel and essential to the United States of America.”
Observers express no doubt that Lowey will continue to focus on local concerns despite her high profile position on Appropriations. As an example, they point to her willingness over the summer to champion JCC Rockland’s petition efforts to obtain a minute of silence at the London Olympiad on behalf of the Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
“When you’re in those kind of leadership positions, you do a balancing act,” said Adler. “She didn’t need to apply pressure to the folks in Great Britain, when they are looking to deal with her on international relations. She could have just stepped back.”
Lowey also has pressed strongly for Rockland County to have access to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program. These grants enable organizations to bolster their security, and Jewish groups around the country have been very successful at obtaining funding through the program. Currently, Rockland County, not considered part of the New York urban area, remains ineligible – while groups in New York City, Westchester, and Long Island have all qualified.
“When we talk homeland security, we have to talk about the whole region,” Lowey said. “Rockland, Westchester, Nassau, Suffolk are all part of the metropolitan region, and I will continue to make that point as eloquently as I can.”
When Lowey assumes representation of the 17th Congressional District, it will the be first time in a decade that Rockland County will be unified since former Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, a Republican, was in Congress. That is good not only for the Jews, but for all Rocklanders, said Kristin Stavisky, chairwoman for the Rockland County Democratic Committee and the newly recommended nominee for the Democratic Commissioner slot on the Rockland Board of Elections.
“She really hit the ground running and really made it her job over the past several months of campaigning to get to know the county,” Stavisky said. “As a Jewish woman, she is an incredible role model. She stands strong for Israel and makes no bones about it. She is a very powerful and respected leader.”
The respect was evident, Stavisky said, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently sought funds from Washington to help New York State in the aftermath of Sandy. “He deferred a lot to Nita,” she said. “She is the elder stateswoman, and she has a lot of pull and respect. We are lucky to have her.”
Clarkstown Councilwoman Stephanie Hausner concurred. Hausner got her start in politics working as in intern in Lowey’s office.
“At the time, she [Lowey] had just joined the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, right after 9/11. She showed me that you really can make a difference in government for your community.”
The idea that you can still make a difference has not worn off the 75-year-old Lowey. With 23 years and counting in the House under her belt, she still remembers the breathlessness that overcame her when she first arrived in Washington as an intern during her junior year at Mount Holyoke.
“Here I am in the Congress of the United States of America. I must tell you, when I look up at the Capitol Dome, I still can’t believe I’m part of it.”