Small groups of 'ultra-motivated activists' deciding elections?

New York Times political writer Matt Bai wrote out some new laws of politics last week, following the Tuesday electoral primaries that caused such discomfort for the established parties in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arizona. One of his observations is

...when fewer people bother to engage in party politics, it takes a smaller group of ultra-motivated activists to overturn the traditional order of things.

The connection he does not make is that this has been a rule of New York politics for many years. It's something that the two major parties count on to get their people elected to office: apathy among the mass of voters. Consider another fact published in the May issue of Harper's Magazine. In a very tough indictment of the State Legislature, "The Albany Handshake," writer Christopher Ketcham notes that "one-third of all current New York State legislators took office in special elections for which voter turnout as low as 2 or 3 percent was typical."

When practically no one votes, it's easier to load up the ballots with a get-out-the-vote effort designed to favor one candidate. I've watched this happen, as elected officials resign part-way through their terms in order to force a special election to fill their seats. But even I was surprised that a full third of the legislature had won seats that way.

Of course, the two parties are not the only ones who can play that game. In recent years, unions have called on loyal members to turn out in numbers, and none so successfully as the coalition of unions known as the Working Families Party. Although, the New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers certainly present another strong force, especially to the extent that they can reach out to parent-teacher groups to spread the activism beyond their members to a more general voting public. E-mail has been a wonderful tool for these organizations.

I dislike the manipulation that's involved in loading up the ballot with a particular group of voters, because it cynically counts on the majority to care not at all. But I wonder if appealing to our passionate interests as voters is such a bad thing. I vote as a parent, and maybe as a worker who wants paid family leave, if I am a Working Families Party ally. But for fewer of us now, the labels Democrat and Republican stir much loyalty at all.

Anti-abortioners get them while they're young

A 12-week-old fetus model My daughters came home from a street fair near our home with this "cute rubber baby" -- given to them by an anti-abortion group that had set up a table at the fair. The trouble is, my daughters are 12 and 10. These activists apparently pulled them aside -- or maybe just lured them over with rubber babies and pencils -- and talked to them about abortion without their parents present.

My girls came home and asked me what abortion is. The activists had told them something about "ripping up a baby" in the womb. I answered the question -- I believe in giving my kids good information when they're curious, along a healthy dose of spin about our family's beliefs. But I resented this group for introducing my kids to this issue too young and framing it with their bias.

It's not that we don't talk about sexuality and reproduction at home. Their dad and I have explained the facts of life and the dangers of becoming pregnant as a consequence of having sex. We've taken every opportunity to teach them to respect their bodies -- by eating well, by not lifting their shirts for second-grade boys on the school bus.

But what happened to my rights as a parent to teach them about life and morality at my own pace? These anti-abortion folks, as usual, seem to care more for the life of some hypothetical baby than for the innocence of the two young girls standing in front of them.

I've heard that some 10-year-olds can be very mature and even sexually active. But mine simply are not. They carried the rubber babies around for the rest of the weekend, talking about how cute they are, and made them a place to sleep in their dollhouse.

This rubber baby was supplied by heritagehouse76.org, an online warehouse supplying any number of items to the anti-abortion movement. The company was founded by Virginia and Ellis Evers, activists who began using silhouettes of tiny baby feet on lapel buttons in the 1970s to further their cause. The rubber babies must have come later. You can order them in several different models and three "ethnicities." (White baby shown above.) The people at the street fair also gave my daughters a pencil with a silhouette -- which is the size of a 10-week-old baby's feet.

Fortunately, the other side was represented at the fair too. My kids also came home with bright pink lapel pins stating, "My body is not public property." These came from the American Civil Liberties Union. My 10-year-old read the pin out loud to me, and I responded, "That's right. Your body is not public property." Especially not for some anti-abortion fanatic at a street fair trying to indoctrinate little girls before their time.

Gay marriage as farewell

Gov. David Paterson's newfound energy to pass a same-sex marriage bill may look like a political resurgence. But in reality, it could serve as one of the final acts of his governorship. Since the Obama White House apparently conveyed its desire in mid-September that Paterson not run for governor in 2010, some Democrats have been searching for legacy accomplishments that would give Paterson a graceful exit.

Permitting gay marriage in New York is perfectly on point for this governor, considering his socially progressive past as the State Senate Minority Leader. He championed same-sex marriage then. Passing this legislation would restore New York, somewhat, to its glory days as a leader in social causes. Six other states have already passed similar measures. Seventh isn't first -- but it's better than never.

State Senate Democrats, in particular, have criticized Paterson for abandoning his progressive roots when he rose to governor. This legislation would help heal that fissure and begin writing a positive legacy for the governor.

NY Democrats' binary choice for governor

Nearly 72 percent of NY voters in a Siena Poll published this week said that they would prefer "someone else" in 2010 for governor over Gov. David Paterson. But people involved in politics in NY almost never ask themselves the question that way. They ask themselves, "Do I want David Paterson? Or do I want Andrew Cuomo?" At least for now, that's how the choice seems to break down. As attorney general, Cuomo has taken on so many high-profile battles -- and has even won a few -- that he's approaching that gold standard of politics: inevitability.

As NY Democrats try to decide who to support for governor -- a decision that will become more urgent after Election Day on Nov. 3 -- they're watching both men closely. Paterson met with his advisers on a recent Monday night, Oct. 12. They told him that the people close to him understand his strengths as a leader -- intelligence, consensus-building, fine oratorical skills -- but that the ectorate has not yet seen the real David Paterson. The way he ascended to the post, without a long race during which the public could vet him, is partly to blame. So is the global economic melt-down. With his approval rating at 19 percent, the advisers probably didn't have to work too hard to convince him to try something different.

Two days after that meeting, Paterson announced a plan to take on the $3 billion budget deficit. He has been aggressively making the rounds of radio and television shows to demonstrate his leadership. His appearance on NY1 this week was particularly memorable, as he berated "Saturday Night Live" for portraying him as a bumbler.

Many Democrats are rooting for Paterson behind the scenes. He's a "nice guy," but his ability to follow through with initiatives remains in question. In that sense, this recent call to cut the budget is a significant test, as is his proposal today to bring the issue of gay marriage to a vote by the end of the year.

"Nice guy" are not the first words people use to describe Andrew Cuomo. Many remember him as a campaign "enforcer" during the years his father, Mario Cuomo, was governor. I moved to NY in 2003 and did not personally witness those days. What I see now is an attorney general making good on campaign promises to clean up government. But he also pulls no punches with other leading Democrats who might be considered rivals -- or distractions on the march toward inevitability? -- people such as Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

Is Cuomo's hard-charging style evidence that the enforcer lives beneath the surface? Time will tell.

Now Charlie Rangel plays the race card

It's being reported today by Fox News that Rep. Charlie Rangel says "bias" and "prejudice" toward President Barack Obama is fueling opposition to health-care reform. I have no doubt that many of the same people who had hard feelings about Sen. Obama because of his race prior to the election still feel that way -- and they could be using the health-care debate as an opportunity to attack him. But portraying the opposition in simplistic racial terms stifles honest debate. With so many years in public life, Rangel ought to know better -- as should Gov. David Paterson, who made a similar statement last week. Here's what Rangel, the dean of the New York delegation, had to say:

"Some Americans have not gotten over the fact that Obama is president of the United States. They go to sleep wondering, 'How did this happen?' " Rangel (D-Manhattan) said Tuesday.

Speaking at a health-care forum in Washington Heights, Rangel said that when critics complain that Obama is "trying to interfere" with their lives by pushing for health-care reform, "then you know there's just a misunderstanding, a bias, a prejudice, an emotional feeling."

First of all, every president has detractors. No one is elected with 100 percent of the population voting for him. And the people who "lost" the presidential election always wait in the wings for a moment to pounce. It's been that way for as many presidential terms as I've witnessed. Calling it race prejudice doesn't make it so. Obama's detractors are motivated by many reasons, and just one of them is racial.

The other thing that bothers me is that now anyone who speaks out against health-care reform is presumably a racist, if we are to take Rangel's statement to its logical conclusion. Of course Rangel can't believe that. But people with a valid opposition to the president's plans may feel tarred by that brush for speaking up. What kind of way is that to run an important national discussion? Likewise, when Gov. Paterson accuses "some in the news media" of portraying him in a biased way, isn't he essentially telling them to shut up?

I remember when New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn -- an openly gay politician -- was first elected. I like and admire Quinn, but I also think she revels in being a very sharp political player. She cuts deals. Because I thought that was her calling card, I sometimes wrote about her that way.

One morning I received a call from one of her aides questioning my judgment. "You write about her in a way you don't write about anyone else," the aide said. I felt at that moment that I was being called a homophobe -- although Quinn's political moves, not her orientation, was what interested me. After that, I tried to avoid the issue altogether by writing about her less. But I don't think that served anyone well -- not me, and not Quinn, who after all is in politics. Politicians like attention.

I'm not sure it ever serves a debate well to question the other side's motivation. Although, it is a thriving practice in modern America.