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Switching political parties can be a career-ending risk

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, second from left,

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, second from left, is thanked by New York State Republican chairman Edward Cox, left, during Levy's announcement for his Republican candidacy for governor outside the Capital building in Albany. (March 19, 2010) Credit: AP

ALBANY - These days, fans of Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy like to invoke the memory of another longtime Democrat and union man who switched parties after the age of 50 to become a paragon of Republicanism: Ronald Reagan.

They prefer not to talk about a party switcher closer to home, whose decision to become a Democrat led to a quick and nasty end to his political career: former Rep. Michael Forbes of Quogue.

But those two careers spell out the conundrum faced by Republicans statewide as they take the measure of their ambitious newest convert. Levy, while casting himself as "post-partisan," argues that his economic vision, record and dynamism make him better suited to lead Republicans as governor than former Brightwaters Rep. Rick Lazio.

Others are skeptical. As state Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island), a Lazio supporter, put it: "We don't need a born-again Republican. We have a Republican."

Reagan's gift for expressing his new party's core values landed him in the governor's office four years after he switched parties - he famously said he didn't leave the Democratic Party, "the party left me."


Will voters understand?

But when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat, switched parties in 2001 to run for mayor as a Republican, it was based on a calculation that he would never make it past the throngs of entrenched local pols who dominated his party. He later became an independent.

"Automatically, most voters are sophisticated enough to understand that that person is switching because their ambition has kissed them on the lips," said Democratic consultant George Arzt.

Who switches, and how and why they switch, makes all the difference in how they're greeted by voters. On Long Island, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a nurse and lifelong Republican, ran on the Democratic line in 1996 to defeat her party's incumbent, Dan Frisa, who opposed her gun-control platform after her husband was killed in the Long Island Rail Road massacre. She changed parties seven years later. McCarthy is Long Island's most popular U.S. representative, a Newsday/Siena poll found last fall.

But former Republican Lt. Gov. Betsey McCaughey Ross was already viewed as Albany's odd-woman-out when she switched parties during her term after losing favor with Gov. George Pataki; she found no embrace from Democrats, either.

Nor did voters flock to Suffolk County Sheriff Patrick Mahoney when he switched from Republican to Democrat to challenge incumbent County Executive Robert Gaffney in 2000. Already under criminal investigation, Mahoney lost badly.

Mahoney's nemesis, Republican District Attorney James Catterson, would himself be driven from office by a party switcher, Republican-turned-Democrat Tom Spota, a respected Mahoney pal who has since been re-elected.


A cautionary tale

Still, most say Forbes' 1999 break with his party led to the most harrowing payback they can recall. Within a day of his announcement, Forbes' entire staff had quit. Local pols penned scathing op-eds and the national GOP dubbed him a traitor.

National Democrats fought to hold his seat, but Forbes was targeted in a primary by a local activist, who beat him by 35 votes before losing to a Republican, Felix Grucci. If Forbes' switch left him a man without a political home, veterans say he had it coming. Years earlier he had publicly dumped his mentor, Newt Gingrich, then voted to impeach President Bill Clinton days after being treated to a ride on Air Force One.

He switched with no warning to staff or leaders, calling his party "angry, narrow-minded, intolerant and uncaring" - just weeks, Republicans claimed, after asking for re-election help.

After his defeat, Forbes went on to a turn as head of Huntington's troubled chamber of commerce, and co-owned a medical practice offering checkups for volunteer firefighters, before leaving the Island for a suburb of Austin, Texas, where he has a consulting practice. Reached by phone there, Forbes says he's a "hard-core Democrat," but happy to leave politics behind.

"Steve is a great county executive," Forbes said of Levy. "But I think he's going to find they're not going to be all that receptive. And there are going to be people out there who are just going to question his motives from start to finish."


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