King, with his bulky, thick frame, salt-and-pepper hair and brash demeanor that gives him a resemblance to The Comedian from Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen, is no stranger to controversy, or picking fights. Currently serving his 10th term as a representative of New York’s 3rd Congressional District—which encompasses primarily eastern Nassau County and the South Shore of Western Suffolk—the Congressman is a former Nassau County Comptroller and the son of a New York City police officer. He has taken, and delivered, more than the average fair share of lumps throughout his career, both figuratively and literally.
He’s outspoken (infamously branding Michael Jackson a “pedophile” upon the pop star’s death in 2009; petitioning U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to designate WikiLeaks a “foreign terrorist organization” and prosecute its founder Julian Assange for espionage last November). And he’s unapologetic.
He is known as an independent thinker, someone who will break with his party if the issue calls for it. King was one of only four Republicans who refused to impeach President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He doesn’t care too much for political correctness or popularity. And he packs a “great left jab and a great left hook,” boasts his trainer, Chris Cardona, owner of Bellmore Kickboxing MMA.
King’s a longtime boxer and still spars on Long Island—weekly when Congress is in session; two or three times a week when it is not. King says there are some similarities to the grudge matches waged on Capitol Hill.
“It’s like politics as far as the challenge and you’re out there on your own,” he explains. “It’s a little bit easier than politics, though, in that the enemy’s always in front of you. In politics it could be the guy’s on your side, standing behind you, [and] they’re putting a knife in you.”
Those knives are certainly drawn as of late, though they’re not limited to the committee room floor, as the criticism aired at the various rallies on LI and elsewhere are testament.
Yet King remains wildly popular in his district and across LI, specifically Nassau County—where cheers and applause from his supporters at Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano’s inauguration ceremony last year drowned out that of its honoree at certain points. Nassau being once so much so an impenetrable GOP bastion it caused former President Ronald Reagan to remark, “When a Republican dies and goes to heaven, it looks a lot like Nassau County.”
Those who know King best, both in and out of the political arena, describe this latest hubbub over the upcoming hearing par for the course. But at its core lies an important debate with grave consequences, nonetheless.
“He doesn’t just go with the tide,” explains former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, a Republican and founder of the national public policy and business development firm Park Strategies, LLC, who has known King for more than 40 years. “He believes that this is a serious problem.”
“His love for this country is second-to-none,” adds D’Amato. “He is truly a patriot.”
Other friends of King agreed.
“What the congressman is trying to do is challenge the standing thought that really the threat emanates from overseas,” says Long Islander Michael Balboni, a former Republican New York State senator as well as a former deputy secretary for public safety and the designated homeland security advisor for the state. “He’s trying to form a composite picture of where we stand in this ongoing struggle against the asymmetrical threat of terrorism.”
Even Jay Jacobs, Nassau and New York State Democratic Party Chairman, doesn’t dispute King’s conviction to protecting the country, but he faults the way he’s going about doing it—and primarily, his motivation.
“Peter King is serious about homeland security,” Jacobs admits. “He doesn’t take it lightly. I don’t think that he’s coming from an evil place, but I would say to you he’s making a mistake because he switched the focus from what creates a terrorist and what we can do to stop it to an overall investigation of the Muslim community. I think that’s wrong. It’s a political misstep. He could have accomplished his goals without such an incendiary approach. It harms a community that is a very good and loyal and as American a community as any other.
“Peter King is a very sharp political operator,” he continues. “He’s weighed this. He understood fully what he was getting into when he framed the debate in this manner. He’s doing it for some advantage, I believe, as well as his sincere concerns for homeland security… When the dust settles, after whatever damage has been created and time has gone by, people will know Peter King.”
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, believes the issue has more to do with King’s genetic makeup than political aspirations.
“These hearings are more a reflection of Peter’s personality and his world view,” he says. “He believes, particularly after having gone to several dozen funerals after 9/11, that Muslim extremism is a danger. He is not doing this, whether you agree with him or not, to earn political points. It doesn’t hurt him with his base and it wouldn’t help him if he were serious about seeking statewide office and needed to appeal to moderate suburban swing voters.
“I may think that these hearings are the wrong way to go, but he doesn’t, and he really believes it,” adds Levy. “Anybody who says he’s taking this position to score political points doesn’t know Peter King. Once he came under attack, what he might call his ‘stubborn Irish streak’ came into play. He still spars!”