by Mark J. Grossman
Commiserating earlier this year about how Rep. Michael Forbes was making serious political mistakes in his newly adopted party, one well-placed congressional Democrat told me he advised Forbes to stop micromanaging his re-election campaign and instead listen to the advice of Long Island political professionals. He said he told Forbes: “Mike, you can win this race. Stay out of it!”
Indeed, Mike Forbes — not the national Republican Party, as he has said — was his own worst enemy. The primary and the general election were his races to lose. Regina Seltzer, the ultimate victor in last week’s Democratic primary election, would be the first to tell you that she never expected to beat Forbes. Forbes’ three-term incumbency, plus the high level of support “courageous” party-switchers historically garner from the electorate, would normally have made him the odds-on favorite in the general election.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Democratic primary.
Most fatal was Forbes’ inability, or unwillingness, to organize grass-roots support, a key to winning low-turnout primaries. For example, such a large number of committee people refused to carry his nominating petitions that Forbes’ campaign had to pay people to collect Democratic signatures so he could qualify on his newly adopted party’s line.
Assemblywoman Debra Mazzarelli, who made the Republican-to-Democrat switch two years earlier, successfully cultivated the support of many volunteers who rallied to her side. Since his switch more than a year ago, one could never identify “Forbes people.”
This fatal flaw was evident in the get-out-the-vote calls for primary day. Calls for Seltzer were made by real, live volunteers; calls for Forbes were pre-recorded messages from House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.
Forbes also never attracted a core of good local Long Island political professionals to his government and campaign staffs. The people he leaned on for advice approached things with a Washington mindset, far from the pulse of eastern Suffolk and the local Democratic Party committees.
Perhaps that’s why he blundered the whole Right-to-Life Party endorsement issue, probably the death knell of his candidacy. He seemed not to understand how Suffolk Democrats could, on one hand, tolerate his minority view on reproductive choice while, on the other hand, find a political marriage with the divisive, extremist, single-issue Right-to-Life Party totally unacceptable.
Democratic leaders urged him to shun the Right-to-Life Party endorsement. He argued that the line had been good to him in the past, and the votes might be needed for November. Democrats warned that, if he took the line, he might lose so much support within the party that there might not be a November.
Ultimately, he announced that he would not be taking the line, good news that proved only temporary. Forbes promptly took out full-page ads in Suffolk Life denouncing Right-to-Life Party leaders for “denying” him their endorsement. This was a move no political professional would sanction.
Did he really want the line? If it was offered, would he have accepted? Was it truthful for him to say that he decided not to take the line? Democrats began to wonder, and with good reason.
Sure, the national GOP’s direct mail barrage reminding Democrats of Forbes’ more conservative votes hurt. But negative campaign charges stick only when voters already have some doubt, and Forbes’ actions over the preceding months gave them more than moments of pause.
As primary day neared, Seltzer’s once quixotic campaign started to take shape. The Saturday before the primary, her living room — which served as her headquarters — was filled with energetic gray-haired volunteers. The 5,000-piece “targeted” mailing they were stuffing would prove to be amazingly on-target, as she received some 5,825 votes three days later, 35 more than Forbes.
Over the last 14 months since abandoning his Republican enrollment, Forbes was given his chance as a Democrat. Unfortunately for him, he blew it.
Some now look at Seltzer patronizingly and chuckle that the race is over. But nothing can be further from the truth. Sure, she can’t win a general election with $40,000 as she did in the primary, especially when her opponent will have millions. But if the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decides to get involved — and it is talking seriously with Seltzer and local party leaders about this right now — then she can win.
Health care, prescription drugs, HMOs — who else can better make the Democratic case for these issues than a 71-year-old widowed grandmother?
She was 6 years old when her family came to America from Poland, fleeing persecution. She served on the Brookhaven Town Board in the post-Watergate 1970s. She went to law school at the age of 54. And she’s smart enough and modest enough to know that many Democrats went into the voting booth last week to cast a ballot against Mike Forbes, not necessarily for Reggie Seltzer.
So now her work really begins.
Mark J. Grossman is president of a Holtsville public relations firm whose clients include the New York State Democratic Party. The opinions expressed are his own.
After Switching Parties, Forbes Became His Own Worst Enemy
Newsday; Long Island, N.Y.; Sep 21, 2000; Mark J. Grossman