Tristan Israel is ending 24 years as a Tisbury selectman, and even longer in town government, where he cut his teeth as an appointed member of the conservation commission.
But long before he came to Martha’s Vineyard, the native of Mamaroneck, N.Y., was going to Adlai Stevenson rallies with his mother. Long after he’s done holding court in the Katharine Cornell Theater, he’ll be mixing it up on the Dukes County Commission and advocating for a Democrat to unseat President Donald Trump in 2020.
The Times sat down with him at Black Dog Bakery & Cafe on State Road, Israel’s unofficial office. We had a list of questions, but you really need only one, and Israel is off and running: “You could interview me for hours, obviously I’m a talker.”
In a little more than an hour, Israel tackles a wide range of issues including town politics (people don’t respect the government enough), his bout with tularemia (he gained more notoriety than he cares to remember, but he did quit smoking. “Not a recommended way to do it”), his more recent bout with a stroke (scary), his music (it includes a song about tularemia, really, look it up on YouTube), his arrest as a protester of the Vietnam War outside the 1964 World’s Fair (his dad wasn’t happy with him), and how a native New Yorker came to wear a Red Sox cap (the Giants broke his heart when they left for San Francisco).
His Island story starts as many do. He had friends who had a summer place here, and came with them to the Vineyard. He got a summer job as a truck driver, delivering the Island’s booze. (That may give some people who know him as an outspoken critic of legalizing alcohol in Vineyard Haven a chuckle.) He left the Island, worked in retail in Washington, D.C., for a while, and even drove a taxi in Boston, and when his first marriage ended in divorce, he returned to the Island — never to look back.
“I was late. I want to say I was like 34 or 35 years old when I grew up on some levels,” he says with a hint at some personal demons that needed conquering. “There’s a tremendous support group here on the Island. I tried to get my life together. I started a business.”
He freely admits it was a NIMBY issue that prompted his involvement with Island government — a large supermarket, a bank complex, and a bypass road were planned on the site of the Nobnocket Garage not far from his Snake Hollow home. “It was one of those seminal issues — very divisive,” he said. First he became a regular at Martha’s Vineyard Commission meetings, then found himself at conservation commission meetings. He was appointed as an alternate, then as a commissioner, and later ran and was elected to the planning board.
In 1994, an incumbent selectman, Ida Churchill, decided not to run. Israel boldly joined a race against three Islanders. He won. “I most likely got in because the vote was split,” he says with a knowing grin.
He’s been re-elected eight times since. He can be combative. He can be self-deprecating. He can be annoyingly long-winded. (“I really like to — probably painstaking for people like yourself at times, I’m sure — but I really try to bring people together.”) And he’s not afraid to change his mind if someone can give him a compelling argument. He does it all, he says, for the right reasons — trying to keep taxes down so people don’t have to make the decision to leave the Island, and service to the community.
“The town was very divided then, different than the school issue now … between whether to have a large sewer system or not, and the police department, where there was a civil war going on,” he said of his first election. “I think some of what was happening was beyond the issues themselves. It was a transition between the old, mostly Portuguese descendants — back then they were the majority of the population of the town — and the transplanted population that was moving in. It was ironic because some of the Portuguese families who owned a lot of land here were selling, so in a way they were creating what they didn’t want.”
On the police department, Israel says he could talk all day about the problems there, and could probably write a book. Problems have persisted within the department throughout his tenure on the board. “I don’t know a lot about law enforcement on a technical level. I always found it ironic because when there was dissatisfaction, they would say the selectmen are micromanaging. Yet if I was guilty of anything, I still maintain, I allowed them their process to work out. I’m really hopeful with the new police chief, and I feel good about that. It’s one of the things that’s enabling me, at least in my own head, to move on. I think he’s going to be different.”
On the sewer system, he recalls one particular, animosity-filled meeting between people who wanted a mega-sewer system shared with Oak Bluffs and those who wanted alternative cluster systems. The town wound up with a small treatment plant: “It was a collaborative process. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of two years of people who didn’t like each other working together. What I always joke about is we wound up with a system nobody liked.”
It’s been 45 minutes at the Black Dog and Israel has barely touched his coffee, and hasn’t taken a bite of the croissant sitting in front of him on the table. He likes to perform, and is working on a new music CD and, even at 70 years old, is looking forward to playing more at Vineyard venues.
This triggers another tangent when I tell him he ruined a song beautifully sung by my late mother — ”Tora Lora Lora,” the Irish lullaby. He sang “Tula Tula Remia” to that tune. But while the song lyrics may be tongue-in-cheek, the situation that prompted it was almost deadly serious.
Infected with what he thought was the flu, Israel was content to ride out the fever and misery at home. But his wife, Times fishing columnist Janet Messineo, pushed him to go to the hospital. It took doctors awhile to figure out — he was in the hospital for two weeks — he had pneumonic tularemia.
Tularemia can be used as a biological weapon, and suddenly Israel found himself being interviewed by the Centers for Disease Control (he likely got it doing his job as a landscaper) and being asked to show up at a convention in Woods Hole after 9/11 as scientists had funding to research it.
“Prior to the convention, I got an email out of the blue from the biological laboratory in Maryland saying when we go out after work, when we go to the local watering hole and lift our glasses, we sing the chorus of your song … I’m imagining the guys in the geek shirts, pencils in their pockets, singing it,” he said. “I went to [the Woods Hole] convention. I was like the Elvis of the biological labs. Sold out the CDs I brought over. It was hilarious.”
The roundabout was another musical inspiration. (Another YouTube video must-see.) Israel was against the roundabout as a way to ease traffic flow at the Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road and Barnes Road intersection. He now concedes it worked — with a caveat: “I still maintain that if they — instead of a roundabout, if they had a right-turning lane from Tisbury to the airport and a right-turning lane from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs, it would have achieved the same thing for a lot less money. Having said that, the actual operation of the roundabout does work.”
He’s served with 13 different selectmen, and says while he didn’t always agree with them, that they were all in it for the same reasons. Allow him a moment to get philosophical. “I love the town. The town has given me back way more than anything I could ever bring to the town. There’s been an amazing, and there are an amazing group of people involved in the town,” he says. “Looking back, I’ve just been given a gift by the people of this town, this Island, being able to serve this town, and I don’t mean that in any kind of pandering way.”
He’s still on the county commissioners, he’s got a gig with the Massachusetts Municipal Association, and he leaves us with these thoughts: “I’m going to disconnect for at least six months or more for a variety of reasons — some personal and some because when you’re with so many issues for so long, I obviously have connected feelings, proprietary feelings. The best thing for myself and the town is to disconnect. Who knows, maybe a year from now, I’ll run for selectman again.”