The surprise decision of Congressman Gary Ackerman to retire after 30 years is a major loss for pro-Israel forces on Capitol Hill. He has been the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and an influential leader in strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.
What's not as well known has been his leadership in strengthening American relations with India and helping build ties between that country and Israel. His 6th Congressional district, with parts of Queens and Long Island, has long had a large Jewish population. Today many Indian-Americans live in Flushing, Rego Park and other Queens neighborhoods, and Ackerman became a champion of US-India relations. He co-founded the House Indian-American caucus.
Ackerman also serves on the Financial Services Committee and President Obama praised his leadership in enacting Wall Street reform legislation as well as his many contributions in foreign policy, particularly US-Israel relations.
He could sometimes be unpredictable on the Middle East, not being afraid to prod Israel toward the peace table when he felt it was moving in the wrong direction.
Ackerman has had a personal relationship with all of Israel's leaders for more than a generation as well as many Arab leaders. He recently played a key role in freeing Ilan Grapel, who had been jailed by Egyptian authorities during that country's revolutionary demonstrations last year.
Ackerman had been telling friends he was planning to run for a 15th term until just before his surprise announcement; invitations had already gone out for his popular annual fundraiser featuring a spread of deli foods hard to find in the outer provinces like Washington, D.C.
He said he is confident he could have been reelected and that Democrats will be able to retain the seat in the redrawn Queens district, but so far he has given no reasons for his apparently sudden decision to retire. In his announcement he said,
"During my years in Congress, it has been my pleasure to address the needs of thousands of individual constituents and to influence domestic and global policy while serving on the Financial and Foreign Affairs Committees in the House. I am most thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to serve my country and my community.”
Assemblyman Rory Lancman was the first to announce he'll seek the Democratic nomination for the seat. Two other possible entries include New York City Council members Mark Weprin and Elizabeth Crowley.
Ackerman is second in seniority among Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) , which will be losing another ranking Jewish member. Howard Berman, the former chairman and top Democrat, and Brad Sherman, fourth in seniority, are running against each other in a new Los Angeles area district.
If Berman were to lose and Democrats win back control of the House, Ackerman would have become chairman.
HFAC, which not very long ago had a minyan of at least 10 Jewish members, now has six and that is dropping. In addition to Ackerman, Berman and Sherman there are Eliot Engel (NY), Ted Deutch (FL) and Allyson Schwartz (PA). All are Democrats. There is only one Jewish Republican in the entire House (and none in the Senate) and that is Eric Cantor (VA), the House majority leader.
Berman called Ackerman a "towering figure in Congress" who "always brings a sense of joy and celebration to his work."
Ackerman, 69, wears a trademark white carnation in his lapel every day, drives a 1966 Plymouth Valiant and lives in a Houseboat – the Unsinkable II – on the Potomac River.
I have know Gary for almost 40 years since I worked for his predecessor, Rep. Benjamin S. Rosenthal, who represented the district from 1962 until his death in 1983. Gary published the Flushing (now Queens) Tribune when we met and he later was elected to the State Senate in 1978 before winning the special election to succeed Rosenthal.
He is the 15th Democrat to announce his retirement after this term; eight others are running for other offices. On the Republican side, nine are retiring and seven others are candidates in other races.