Give Forbes a Chance as a Democrat

July 21, 1999

By Mark J. Grossman

In 1994, George Pataki was dead-set against forming a state- run power authority for Long Island. One-year later, as governor, he was championing the formation of the Long Island Power Authority.

During his 18-year tenure, former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato changed his position on several issues, including support for a higher minimum wage and for giving China most-favored nation trade status.

And former Rep. George Hochbrueckner’s initial position on the abortion issue, which many call the “Democratic litmus test,” evolved from “pro-life” to “pro-choice” by his second term.

That’s why Suffolk Democrats should give Hochbrueckner’s successor, Rep. Michael Forbes, (D-Quogue) a chance to prove that he now wants to be a Democrat for the right reasons. Like the rest of us mortals, politicians should be allowed to change.

When I first heard the news of Forbes’ party switch, my knee-jerk reaction was that I’d sooner believe Teddy Kennedy was joining the Republicans. But after a closer look at Forbes’ three-term congressional odyssey, which included strained relations with the House leadership and his growing support for traditional Democratic issues such as health care, the environment and gun control, one can see that where he stands on critical issues is not much different from the two moderate Democrats-Hochbrueckner and Otis Pike — whose tenures dominated the First Congressional District for 30 years.

Sure, many Democrats harbor anger at Forbes’ votes for all four articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton. But Clinton’s support of his party switch is a clear sign of forgiveness. So if the president is able to move beyond that ugly episode, why should we hold a grudge?

And Forbes’ recent support of Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s gun control amendment, a move that angered the National Rifle Association and his GOP colleagues, shows that he has, and (let’s hope) will, continually re-evaluate his positions on issues based on current information and the desires of his constituents. Isn’t that what people want from their political leaders?

In making this switch, Forbes certainly can’t be accused of political expediency. In less than 24 hours, he went from being a member of the House majority to the minority. He went from being a GOP elected official with a 3-to-2 district enrollment edge to Democrat with a 3-to-2 district enrollment deficit. And he went from having a virtual lock on the GOP party nod to a situation where he’s already threatened with a challenge for the Democratic Party nomination in 2000.

It’s inevitable that people will try to draw parallels between Forbes’ Republican-to-Democrat party switch and a similar move by Assemb. Debra Mazzarelli of Patchogue two years ago. And indeed there are. Both voiced displeasure with the political leadership. Each said that the Republican Party had become out of touch with working people in their districts.

But I would venture to guess that Forbes will need to work harder and longer to win the acceptance of Democrats on Long Island. And much of that has to do with how each made the party switch.

Mazzarelli’s change was a grass-roots move, done “bottom-up” with the support of state and local leaders such as Suffolk Democratic Chairman Dominic Baranello and State Chair (and Suffolk resident) Judith Hope.

Forbes’ switch, on the other hand, was brokered in far-away Washington by the House Democratic leadership, a “top- down” move that would understandably cause some local Democrats to feel left out of the process and feel somewhat resistant and skeptical.

But Election Day is 16 months away, an eternity in the world of politics, and a whole lot can happen between now and May, 2000, when Democrats meet in convention to choose their candidates. Despite news reports that suggest the contrary, no one has guaranteed Michael Forbes the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2000 — at least no one who actually has the power to secure it, if such a thing exists in today’s political party climate. Forbes will have to earn it. That’s his challenge for the next 10 months.

Democrats like to say that their party has a big tent, capable of accommodating those with diverse views. Sure, there are certain critical issues that define Democrats as a party — issues such as the environment, health care, education and, yes, even the issue of women’s choice. But to say that there is a “litmus test” for membership would be disingenuous, considering the diversity of the Democratic Party’s membership and leadership.

With that in mind, Democrats should give Forbes a chance to show that he made this move for the right reasons.

Mark J. Grossman is president of a Holtsville public relations consulting firm among whose clients is the New York State Democratic Party. The opinion expressed are his own.

Mark J. Grossman, Give Forbes a Chance as a Democrat
Newsday, 07-21-1999, pp A35.