On Monday the New York congressional delegation’s longest-serving Republican, Long Island’s Peter King, became the 20th House Republican to announce that he was not running for reelection, and the 16th to retire from public office (four others are running for different offices). This will bring to a close an often controversial 14-term career — though in many respects, King was what passes for a moderate Republican these days. He has occasionally split with his party when public opinion in his suburban district dictated it: He voted against the 2017 Trump tax bill with its locally unpopular provisions limiting state and local tax deductions, and is the rare opponent of Trump’s impeachment who can say he voted against Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.
But occasional moderate heresies aside, King is best known for the outbursts of conservative xenophobia that made him a natural ally for the 45th president. As chairman of the Homeland Security Committee following the GOP takeover of the House in 2010, King held hearings on the alleged radicalization of U.S. Muslims before which he made all sorts of inflammatory statements about the disloyalty of this group of American citizens. After a meeting with President-elect Trump in late 2016, he came out for nationwide surveillance of Muslims via a program similar to the one implemented by NYPD chief Ray Kelly after 9/11. And he was an early and active supporter of Trump’s restrictions on travel visas for Muslims.
King’s anti-terrorist stylings drew renewed attention to his own history of advocacy for a foreign organization known to commit terrorist acts, as the New York Times explained:
For Representative Peter T. King, as he seizes the national spotlight this week with a hearing on the radicalization of American Muslims, it is the most awkward of résumé entries. Long before he became an outspoken voice in Congress about the threat from terrorism, he was a fervent supporter of a terrorist group, the Irish Republican Army.
“We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry,” Mr. King told a pro-I.R.A. rally on Long Island, where he was serving as Nassau County comptroller, in 1982. Three years later he declared, “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.”
The congressman’s association with the IRA did enable him to play a role in the Clinton-brokered Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that ended the era of violence in Northern Ireland usually known as the Troubles.
King often talked about running for higher office (for the Senate in 2000 and 2010, and for the presidency in 2016). His only actual statewide race, for attorney general, failed in 1986. He was comptroller of Nassau County for the 11 years prior to his election to Congress.
At the age of 75, and now serving in the House minority, it’s probably true that it was an appropriate time to hang it all up. In 2018 he got his closest challenge in many years from Democrat Liuba Grechen Shirley; he won by just over six points. But his second congressional district was certainly Trump country in 2016; the mogul carried it by nine points even though Obama won it by five points against Mitt Romney.
Newsday reports that King called Trump to give him the news before announcing his retirement:
King said Trump tried to convince him to stay on the job.
“First, he was surprised. He asked me if I could reconsider. I gave the reasons why, and he said, ‘well, you’ve done a good job,’ something like that,” King said.
It’s unclear if the number of House GOP retirements will outstrip 2018’s bumper crop of 39 (though 13 of those were running for other offices). Only eight Democrats are retiring (three to run for other offices). So this will serve as a counterweight to the already slim possibility that Republicans will flip the House.