Tom Suozzi

Originally a lawyer and accountant, and now the County Executive in Nassau County, New York

Profile by Cate Malek
September, 2005

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote, "Nothing is more hopeless or courageous in politics than seeking an authentic middle ground on the abortion issue. That makes Thomas R. Suozzi a hopeless case or, as I would insist, one brave politician." [1]

Tom Suozzi is a county executive in New York. He's an ambitious politician who managed to bring the budget in Long Island's Nassau County from near bankruptcy to an A+ rating in just three years.[2] He's mentioned running for the governor of New York.

However, Suozzi also recently made the risky move of trying to mediate between the two sides of the abortion debate. He told his audience at Adelphi University:

More than 30 years ago Roe vs. Wade confirmed the legal protection of abortion. Since that time, people on both sides of this issue - and people caught in the middle - have expended tremendous energy, money and emotion in this ever-escalating debate. Today I want to try and convert the same energy, passion and resources that fuel the debate, into a common effort. [3]

He then went on to propose that Nassau County use $3 million of their surplus money over three years to fund alternatives to abortion. He would divide the money between homes for single pregnant women, promotion of adoption and family planning education.

He explained:

?we need to recognize that women are often unfairly judged regardless of the choices they make regarding an unplanned pregnancy and men are often let off the hook. Women who choose abortion have their morality questioned. Women who choose to put a baby up for adoption have their maternal instincts questioned and women who carry an unplanned pregnancy to full term when unmarried or financially insecure are often labeled irresponsible... Our efforts should not be to judge women. Rather, our goal should be to support women.

The abortion debate has been escalating since Roe v. Wade was decided over 30 years ago. The costs of this conflict can currently be seen across the country. In July 2005, Eric Rudolph was given two life sentences without parole for bombing an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.[4] Presidential candidate John Kerry was refused communion by his diocese because of his support for abortion rights. Increasingly, a number of anti-abortion pharmacists are refusing to sell the "morning after" pill. Probably the greatest area of recent conflict has been in the Senate, which has been tearing itself apart over[5] President Bush's judicial nominations, nominations that could determine the future legality of abortion in The United States. More and more, abortion politics drives elections and politics.

According to Suozzi, around 17 percent of pregnancies in Long Island end in abortion. It is a significant number, but about equal to the national average and much lower than the abortion rate in neighboring New York City, where 42 percent of pregnancies end in abortion.

However, because of the extreme polarization around the abortion issue, Suozzi's speech immediately catapulted him into the public spotlight. He attracted an unusual amount of attention for a representative of local government. Many said that this was his aim all along, that taking a centrist position put him in line for a run for governor of New York. Nassau County Minority Leader Peter Schmitt, a Republican, remarked, "I just don't understand what the brouhaha is about. A career politician who is pro-choice announcing that he is pro-choice? This is political grandstanding at its worst."[6] On the other side of the spectrum, Kelli Conlin, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice New York said, "I've had it up to here with politicians who are agonizing over the issue and trying to place themselves in the position of the great peacemaker." [7]

However, despite the amount of attention that is given to more extreme views in the abortion conflict, the majority of Americans call themselves moderates. A 2004 study found that 10 percent of the country is pro-life, 30 percent is pro-choice and 60 percent is in the middle.[8] Much of the response to Suozzi's speech seemed to come from people who found his search for common ground on the abortion issue fit their own views on abortion.

Although the Roman Catholic Church is officially opposed to abortion, Suozzi's Bishop, William Murphy was supportive of the speech, calling it, "important and, on the whole, very helpful." He added that Suozzi "deserves our gratitude for exercising this kind of political leadership."[9]

Wayne Fields, director of the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University, wrote:

For many Americans, most of whom feel pressured by the present political climate into camps of "us" and "them" - in which few of us actually belong - such a message is refreshing?the terms on which the abortion debate have been conducted have driven out all but the most confident and single-minded of participants, excluding those of us "uncomfortable" because we are less single-minded, less sure that views other than our own lack merit or virtue. [10]

Suozzi's first step is to put together a task force on the issue. Arda Nazerian, his chief of staff, said they have tried to include all the stakeholders in the abortion debate in their taskforce. She said they have the president of Planned Parenthood, members from the Catholic diocese, members of an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center, representatives of the healthcare industry and people who expressed interest in the project after hearing Suozzi's speech.

Nazerian said they have asked the members of the taskforce to "leave your opinions at the door. We want your passion, your commitment, but this is not a debate over whether abortion should be legal." She said that so far, the taskforce meetings have been very productive.

"It's amazing how much we have in common," she said.

It remains to be seen how well Suozzi's proposal will go over with the citizens of Nassau County. However, it seems possible that he may be able to move past the stalemate that the abortion debate in the United States has become.

As he said in his speech:

I have found that despite the often unfair and unproductive caricatures of the people on both sides of this issue, defenders of the "pro-choice" and "pro-life" viewpoints are usually intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate and religious people - on both sides. Despite the quality of the people engaged whether it has been at the dinner table or in the halls of congress the abortion debate has generated more heat than light - as a result we have "hardened our hearts" and have failed to recognize that working together there is so much we could accomplish in pursuit of the common good.

[1] E.J. Dionne Jr. "Centrist Courage on Abortion," The Washington Post, May 17, 2005, A21.

[2] Phil Fairbanks, "Financial Comeback is Possible: Nassau County was on the Brink of Bankruptcy Three Years Ago," The Buffalo News, July 19, 2005, A1.

[3] Tom Suozzi, "Common Sense for the Common Good," a speech made at Adelphi University on May 10, 2005.

[4] Shaila Dewan, "Victims Have Say as Birmingham Bomber is Sentenced," The New York Times, July 18, 2005, A14.

[5] Ibid. "Centrist Courage on Abortion"

[6] Michael Rothfeld, "Suozzi's Call on Abortion," Newsday, May 11, 2005, A3.

[7] Michael Rothfeld, "Suozzi to Push Abortion Alternatives," Newsday, May 7, 2005, A5.

[8] Tom W. Smith, "What do Americans Have in Common?" NPR, May 7, 2005. Can be found here.

[9] Bruce Lambert, "Suozzi Calls for 'Common Ground' on Reducing Abortions," The New York Times, May 11, 2005, B5.

[10] Wayne Fields, "Suozzi's Come Together Oratory on a Tough Issue," Newsday, May 22, 2005, A57.