Only hours after celebrating his 47th birthday with a cake Friday afternoon, the staff of New York Republican Rep. Michael P. Forbes was having trouble finding their boss. When Forbes finally called in, aides who glanced at the Caller ID screen were stunned to see the name of House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).
The big secret was about to come out: The unpredictable Long Island congressman was planning to switch parties.
As Capitol Hill surprises go, this one ranked high. After all, while party switching is nothing new to Congress -- five House Democrats have switched since the GOP took control of both chambers in 1994 -- it has been 26 years since a sitting Republican bolted to the other side. And it's practically unheard of for a member of the majority to trade his perks and privileges for the lowly status of the minority.
Democrats were gleeful, claiming the GOP leaders' extremism pushed Forbes into their arms. Furious Republicans impugned Forbes's motives and called in news cameras to record his aides turning in their resignations Monday afternoon.
Behind the furious round of spin lay an intriguing story of how House Democrats, determined to win the six seats they need to reclaim the majority, covertly cajoled Forbes into defecting. With few tangible benefits to offer, they waged a charm offensive -- including a secret meeting with President Clinton and retreats at New York Rep. Gary L. Ackerman's lakeside cabin -- to make Forbes feel at home in a party they say has shed its liberal bias for a more inclusive approach. House Republicans, meanwhile, appeared to stumble when they caught wind of his plans, making little effort to keep their discontented colleague in the fold.
In an interview this week, Forbes proclaimed himself relieved. "I agonized," he said. "I didn't have a lot of people to talk to. Rank-and-file Republicans don't relate to the extremists in the House."
Forbes, an abortion opponent and fiscal conservative who until recently voted against gun control, was an unlikely target for Democrats. But he had broken with his party on health care, the environment and campaign finance reform, and had jousted publicly with former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) over his ethics troubles and whether he could serve as an effective leader.
Even so, Forbes's stature rose dramatically after the fall elections when his chief political patron, then-Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), was tapped to be speaker. Once Livingston resigned in December, that influence ebbed.
"He felt the Republican Party treated him badly, shunted him aside," said Rep. Peter T. King, another New York Republican who has publicly challenged the House leadership. "He always seemed to be looking for more credibility, more respect."
But Democrats said it was policy, not personality, that brought him over to their side. "We aren't getting people to switch because we're out doing this," Gephardt said yesterday. "This is a self-inflicted situation."
Forbes first mentioned the idea of switching to Gephardt when they bumped into each other on a plane to the Hamptons in New York, but he couched it in terms of waiting until the Democrats won back the House. It wasn't until months later that he mentioned the same idea on the House floor to Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a Democratic friend from New York. Engel suggested they speak about it over dinner.
In late May, Forbes approached Engel again, and mentioned that, if he switched, he wouldn't wait until 2000. "I said, well, we really have to go to dinner now," Engel recalled. He met Forbes outside the Cannon Building one night and headed to Young Chow's on Pennsylvania Avenue with Ackerman in tow to discuss Forbes's predicament. "He poured his heart out," Engel said.
Engel, who had gotten to know Forbes by debating him on New York cable television shows, began counseling him and keeping him company. "What I really did all these months is lend moral support and a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold onto," Engel said. "I said to him I thought the Democratic Party had learned from our status in the minority. We had to be a big-tent party; we couldn't be a narrow party."
Ackerman and his wife, Rita, had struck up a friendship with Forbes and his wife, Barbara, after offering them a ride into Manhattan from a bipartisan 1997 retreat in Hershey, Pa., aimed at fostering greater civility. Barbara, who served as deputy political director in the Bush White House, had difficulty understanding why her husband would sacrifice a secure political future for a place in the minority.
The weekend before his switch, Forbes and his wife spent the weekend at Ackerman's Candlewood Lake cabin, barbecuing and boating.
"Barbara was absolutely terrific," Ackerman said. "She had some concerns, but Mike's attitude was he had two basic choices, either throw his lot in with us or find another kind of work."
While Ackerman and Engel provided Forbes with personal solace, Gephardt started discussing with him the political pros and cons of switching parties. Meeting in Gephardt's personal office in the Longworth House Office Building to preserve secrecy and communicating on cell phones, Forbes vented his frustration with GOP resolutions such as one calling for "a day of prayer and humiliation" and another condemning sex between adults and children.
On July 2, Engel ushered Forbes into the Oval Office to meet with the president he had once voted to impeach. Along with White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, the men talked politics and poked fun at the House GOP. Clinton, according to Engel, "said he agreed the Republican leadership was mean-spirited and narrow-minded, and we all laughed."
Once rumors began to surface concerning Forbes's possible defection, GOP leaders did little to woo him. Last Wednesday, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) confronted him on the House floor, and poked his finger into the junior member's chest after Forbes complained about how he was being treated.
"You ought to be on your knees thanking God you're on Appropriations," Davis said, according to both men, referring to Forbes's spot on the key spending panel. "There's 50 Republicans in line waiting for your seat."
From that moment on, not a single Republican leader reached out to Forbes. And by Friday afternoon, he was on a five-person Lear jet, along with his 20-year-old daughter Abby and Democratic aides, heading to Long Island to announce that he was crossing the aisle.
Rep. Michael P. Forbes is the first Republican to switch parties in recent years. Seven Democrats have switched to the GOP since 1994. Five of them were reelected.
Congressional party switches since 1994:
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.)
Sen. Ben Nighthorse
Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.)
Rep. Greg Laughlin (R-Tex.)
Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.)
Rep. Mike Parker (R-Miss.)
Rep. Jimmy Hayes (R-La.)
Lost Senate primary
Rep. Michael P. Forbes
CAPTION: Rep. Michael P. Forbes says he "agonized" over his decision to switch parties.
CAPTION: Explaining his party switch, Rep. Michael P. Forbes of New York says, "Rank-and-file Republicans don't relate to the extremists in the House."