Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi was doing what pols always do at the Broadway Market a few days ago -- shaking hands and kissing babies, reminding everyone that his wife is Polish and pressing all the buttons required to run for governor.
It all seemed pretty innocuous; even his appearance with former Mayor Jim Griffin, who is enthusiastically backing Suozzi. But that prompted the head of NARAL Pro-Choice New York, Kelli Conlin, to score Suozzi for accepting Griffin's endorsement.
"Suozzi should reject this tainted endorsement from an anti-choice extremist who actively encouraged criminal behavior that threatened the well-being of women and their doctors," Conlin said, referring to the former mayor's welcome for Operation Rescue protesters back in 1992.
Abortion will always spur such emotion in New York State politics. And even as both sides search for "common ground," that turf is often hard to find.
But these days, the issue's rhetoric is not always so biting. Suozzi, for example, is a Catholic with places like Chaminade High School, Boston College and Fordham Law on his resume. He's also pro-choice, and in the minds of many, "Catholic and pro-choice" don't reconcile.
Still, he introduced a $3 million program in Nassau County that brought together such disparate groups as Planned Parenthood and Catholic Charities to promote adoption, education and prevention, and homes for single mothers.
The bishop of Rockville Center, William F. Murphy, noted that his church and pro-choice pols -- especially Catholics -- will always be at odds. But he commended Suozzi's efforts.
"I applaud Mr. Suozzi for this courageous and positive call to move beyond polemic and to work together to find alternatives to abortions," Murphy said in Newsday. "I support every effort that will reduce the number of abortions on Long Island until they disappear completely."
The same kind of thinking guides a document signed last month by 55 of the 72 Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives. The brainchild of Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, it stated that none "celebrated" abortion, and all seek to keep it rare.
"In recognizing the church's role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the church in some areas," the letter said. "Yet we believe we can speak to the fundamental issues that unite us as Catholics and lend our voices to changing the political debate -- a debate that often fails to reflect and encompass the depth and complexity of these issues."
DeLauro told The Buffalo News her party shares too much with church teaching to let one flash point destroy a broader relationship.
"We thought that it was time to be public about our faith, and we were comfortable with that role," she said. "Catholic purpose is not defined by one issue, and we are resistant to the thought that this is a one-issue church."
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Catholic Democrat from Buffalo, did not sign the letter. "I don't disagree with it, but I can speak for myself," he said.
Still, Higgins subscribes to the theory, as do many Democrats trying to shift the party toward the center following the 2004 election. He acknowledges he's "evolved" on abortion to a pro-choice position, and that will guarantee him eternal critics. But he said DeLauro's letter tries to link his party's positions with Catholic teaching on "pro-family issues" that ultimately work to reduce abortions.
"If you look below the surface of these issues, it reveals uncomfortable truths," Higgins said. "We're not pro-abortion. And I would argue that Democrats do more to reduce unwanted pregnancies [through their programs] than Republicans."
It's debatable whether a gray area can exist on such a black-and-white issue. But it's hard not to notice that at this point in our history, our politicians are trying to discuss it in a manner far different from what took place across Buffalo's rope lines 14 years ago.