U.S. Rep. Peter King’s recent decision to retire from Congress will end a distinguished career of public service to Long Island, New York and America. In a time when our politics is more fractured and contentious than ever, King’s service is an example worthy of recounting.
My experience with him goes back a half century, to when he and his young family moved to Seaford and he served in Nassau County government. As the Town of Hempstead’s presiding supervisor, I saw then that King had great personal and political gifts, and I encouraged him to run for the Hempstead Town Council. He won that seat, and thereby launched his career in elective office. He would go on to be elected county comptroller twice, and in 1992 was elected to Congress, where he joined me in representing New York.
I can honestly say that there is no one whose career I have supported who has made me prouder than Peter King. I got to witness his knack for international relations even before he was elected to Congress. In 1980, just after I was elected to the Senate, he persuaded me to join him on a fact-finding trip to Northern Ireland, which was then suffering amid a tragic and seemingly endless conflict with Great Britain known as “the Troubles.”
Troubles, indeed, as we found out when we arrived in Belfast and headed to our hotel, which had been attacked several times by the Irish Republican Army and was surrounded by sandbags to protect it from bombs. What happened over the next few days gave us a unique perspective on the conflict there that no amount of official briefings back in the U.S. could have provided.
And what I learned and applied throughout my own Senate service is that it’s critical to get firsthand knowledge of international conflicts directly from the parties involved. In those days, the IRA and its political arm, Sinn Fein, were pariahs among the U.S. diplomatic establishment. But as a proud Irish descendant, King established a rapport with leaders of the Irish resistance movement that would later help bring peace and an end to the Troubles. No less an authority than former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who negotiated the Northern Ireland peace agreement, praised King’s peacemaking efforts, saying, “Once he saw a path to peace that was just and deliverable, he urged and campaigned for everyone to take it.”
But King’s skills as a negotiator and mediator among those with widely divergent points of view didn’t end with his work to help bring justice and lasting peace to Northern Ireland. Here at home, he established a well-deserved reputation as someone who would work tirelessly to bridge political and philosophical differences to find common ground and solve big challenges.
No one stood up more effectively after the Sept. 11 attacks to help rebuild New York and restore American confidence. The result was bipartisan support for billions of dollars in aid to New York for reconstruction, as well as for 9/11 victims’ and first responders’ survivors. And in the aftermath of the attacks, King took up the chairmanship of the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee, where he helped guide the war on international terrorism.
The respect that he commanded from both sides of the political aisle in Congress was demonstrated again after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Because King, a Republican, had built solid bridges to his Democratic colleagues and the administration of President Barack Obama, he was able to bring home to New York desperately needed disaster assistance for devastated Long Island communities, homeowners and businesses.
Our leaders today should heed these examples of effective bipartisan leadership. We need more Peter Kings in Congress — leaders more willing to reach across the political divide to take on America’s biggest challenges. Whether it’s the economy, immigration, health care or national security, putting aside our partisan differences to advance the common good is essential to our national success.
My successor in the Senate, Democrat Chuck Schumer, said of King, “Peter King stood head [and] shoulders above everyone else … I will miss him in Congress [and] value his friendship.” When a senator can praise someone from the opposing party as a colleague and friend, that says it all.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.