Updated Oct. 27, 2000: Earlier this year, the Felix Grucci-Michael Forbes House race in New York's First Congressional District was touted as one of the year's hottest. Then a relatively unknown environmental attorney knocked Forbes off the ballot in the Democratic primary. The resulting contest between fireworks magnate Felix Grucci Jr. and pro bono environmental lawyer Regina Seltzer is remarkable largely for Forbes' absence.
Observers link Forbes' primary defeat to his decision 14 months ago to defect from the Republican Party. In becoming a Democrat, he not only surrendered his all-but-assured lifetime seat as a Republican congressman, but also succeeded in alienating both parties. His stunning defeat is attributable to Democratic skepticism that Forbes had renounced his conservative views, and Republican outrage over his defection.
National GOP leadership orchestrated a sly direct mail and advertising campaign against Forbes, reminding the district's registered Democrats of Forbes' staunch Republican voting record. Organized by the Republican Majority Issues Committee (a little-known nonprofit formed by former aides to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay) the campaign reminded constituents that Forbes was once a self-proclaimed ''loyal lieutenant'' of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). They sent out sharp reminders that Forbes had voted to repeal a ban on assault weapons, and that he had voted to impeach President Clinton. The stealth campaign heated up as the primary drew closer. Backed by an $80,000 contribution from the House GOP campaign committee, New York Republicans launched a direct mail attack, and phoned the 15,000 registered Democrats whose numbers they could find.
Gingrich's loyal lieutenant entered the House in 1994, gradually becoming convinced that the GOP's views were moving too far to the right. Forbes was disillusioned by the 1995 government shutdown, by conservatives' efforts to undermine environmental rules, and by Gingrich's confession that he had misled the House Ethics Committee. His displeasure with the party culminated in 1997 with his vote against Gingrich for speaker, and so Forbes became an outcast in the Republican Party.
But when Forbes switched to the Democratic Party, he incensed Regina Seltzer and other Democrats, because he did so without renouncing his conservative views on such key issues as abortion and gun control. Seltzer tried to convince several friends to run against him, and when nobody was willing, she stood up herself. She went ahead with the decision despite having a meager $40,000 against three-term congressman Forbes' $1.4 million, launching an underdog campaign.
Seltzer, 71, served on the Brookhaven town council from 1976 to 1980 and on the planning board from 1980 to 1986. A former school librarian and elementary school teacher, she later earned a law degree from Hofstra University and started her own practice focusing on environmental and children's issues.
Seltzer has been running a homespun campaign from the beginning. Her campaign headquarters is her kitchen; her home phone number is listed as the primary contact number. Seltzer's reliance on the support of roughly 400 volunteers and paltry funding made the September 13 primary all the more a nail-biter. She beat Forbes by just 35 votes, narrowly vindicating her claim as "the real Democrat." It remains to be seen whether grassroots tactics can keep Seltzer's candidacy alive, since polls show Grucci in the lead. The New York Times endorsed Seltzer on Oct. 27, saying she has an "uphill struggle" but "deserves to succeed."
Seltzer's opponent, Felix Grucci Jr., was "polling voters to assess how to alter his campaign" less than 24 hours after Seltzer's surprise win, according to Long Island Newsday. A hometown boy with a high school education, Grucci is president of the industry-leading "pyrotechnic entertainment" firm Fireworks by Grucci since 1983. He has been Brookhaven town supervisor since 1995, and is heavily favored to win in the district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly two to one. Long Island Newsday has endorsed Grucci's run, citing his experience as town supervisor.
As supervisor, Grucci helped implement a program teaching public school students about local government. He also spearheaded demolition of dozens of abandoned buildings in what he touted as an anti-crime initiative dubbed Operation Firestorm. The empty structures, he reasoned, would attract prostitution and other crime.
A potential Achilles' heel in Grucci's candidacy is the allegation that his fireworks company polluted the district's groundwater, and was responsible for illegal sandmining. There is also a small campaign finance matter. Grucci was found using taxpayer money to pay for about $1,000 in overtime costs at a campaign event. He wrote a Town of Brookhaven check to the school district for a campaign event, held at a Brookhaven school, where Senator John McCain (R-Az.) endorsed his congressional run. The Grucci campaign initially argued that the campaign event could be considered a town function, and that it was educational. After more questions were asked, and Long Island Newsday ran a story about it, Grucci's campaign reimbursed the town. Seltzer has also hinted at Grucci's connection to a recent scandal involving former Suffolk Republican Chairman John Powell, who is in prison for his role in a stolen truck ring. She raised the issue when the two met at an October 12 debate, saying, "He's the supervisor. He's the one who's responsible for what's happening in the town."
Despite the flashpoints, Grucci is running a formidable campaign, bolstering his own ample finances with funds from the National Republican Congressional Committee. He boasts endorsements from McCain and erstwhile presidential contender Elizabeth Dole, and has the advantage of running in a district where his hometown makes up 60 percent of the vote.
Seltzer and her army of 400 volunteers, while doing a formidable job of running a stiff campaign with little experience and far less funding, must outdo themselves if they hope to mount a serious challenge to the fireworks king.