Will Grandma Seltzer Go To Washington?


It was after 5 p.m. and almost all of the television cameras, newspaper reporters and photographers had left the waterfront Bellport, L.I., home of Regina Seltzer last Wednesday when Rep. Carolyn McCarthy called from Washington to extend congratulations after Seltzer’s apparent upset primary victory over Rep. Michael Forbes.

"How’s it going?" asked fellow Democrat McCarthy.

"I think you know how it’s going because you went through this once too,"Seltzer said, referring to McCarthyís own 1996 upset victory over Republican incumbent Dan Frisa.

A few minutes later, Seltzer, a 71-year-old Jewish grandmother, hung up and said McCarthy had invited her to Washington to discuss fund raising. In her primary race (which she won by 35 votes in a recount) Seltzer said she had spent only $40,000 that was raised through $5 and $25 contributions from neighborhood supporters.

"Everyone who sent a check sent a little note saying, ‘Go for it, Reggie,’" Seltzer said, referring to her nickname. "This startedout as a race against Forbes and it ended as a pro-Seltzer [contest]. I don’t think there’s any question about it. A lot of people said, ‘Get Forbes,’ and others said it is wonderful that someone with my integrity was willing to run."

Seltzer’s message was a simple one: Forbes, a Republican who turned Democrat last year, still continued to vote as a Republican. And his views (including his anti-abortion stance) are out of sync with the community’s Democrats. She said many of these same views are held by her Republican opponent, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Felix Grucci, who is the favorite in the race because of the district’s 2-to-1 GOP enrollment and because 51 percent of the district is in the town of Brookhaven.

Although she is little known in politics, Seltzer, who lost her husband in December, is known in her community for her work with the garden club, the League of Women Voters, and the free environmental legal work she has done since completing her law degree from Hofstra University when she was 54. Others remember her as a member of the Brookhaven Town Board. She and three other Democrats were swept into office in 1976 following a Republican scandal. It was the first time a Democrat had been elected to the town board in 50 years. They were all defeated for re-election four years later.

Others know her from her years as a librarian in the Patchogue-Medford School District, where she worked in three schools.

Born to Sophie and Herman Kratzer in Katowitze, Poland, on Sept. 4, 1929, Seltzer said her parents decided to flee Europe in 1932 as anti-Semitism increased with the depth of the Depression.

"My father had an upholstery shop and he was doing very well," she said. "Then, they started to beat up Jews in the street. My mother had been born in Poland and grew up there, and it was hurtful to be treated like an outsider."

One day, a teenage boy who was an apprentice in her father’s upholstery store came to work in a fascist uniform.

"My mother said, ‘Why are you wearing that uniform? Don’t you know Herman is Jewish and they are beating Jews in the street?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.’ With that, my mother said that when we have reached the point that a 15-year-old boy has to take care of us, this is not the country for us anymore."

So the three of them boarded a boat for Palestine and lived with her grandparents on a farm in a kibbutz in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Nachlot Ganym.

When her father had a difficult time finding a job, he sailed in steerage back to Poland in 1936 and, with the help of his Christian friends, started a new business.

"He wrote my mom saying business is great, come back," said Seltzer. "My mother wrote back, ‘Are they still beating Jews in the street?’ My father said yes, so she wrote for him to come back. He did in 1937."

That same year, the three of them heeded the advice of her father’s youngest brother, Harry Strom, who was living in Brooklyn, and moved to the United States. They lived in Brooklyn one year and then moved to the Bronx. Her parents learned English quickly and in five years they all became American citizens.

"My mother was irreligious, my father was traditional, and my grandparents were Orthodox," said Seltzer. "We lived with my grandparents when we were in Palestine, so we had a kosher home. When we got to Brooklyn, I was Orthodox and went to yeshiva. I remember my mother saying that we were going to visit relatives on Saturday, and I said, ‘But itís Shabbos.’ And she said, ‘You’re not driving the train.’ But my father did not travel [on the Sabbath]."

Seltzer said she attended yeshiva and Hebrew high school until she was 18, at the insistence of her mother. And she took her own two sons to synagogue in the Bronx.

"But once my father died, we stopped," she said.Seltzer said she considers herself a "traditional person. I know I’m a Jew, but I don’t practice" regularly.

One of her two sons died at the age of 15. Her other son, Eric, is now a lawyer. Her husband, Stanley, who was a chemist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, grew up in an Orthodox home. Their two boys attended Hebrew school at Temple Beth El, an Orthodox synagogue in Patchogue, L.I., where they were bar mitzvah.

Seltzer said that when she was first approached with the idea of running against Forbes in a primary, she laughed.

"I’ve done my bit, and it’s not appropriate for someone my age [to run]," she recalled saying. "This should be a race for someone who wants to promote their career. But no one wanted to do it."

And those who did were reportedly told by Democratic Party officials that Forbes was their choice and that it would be political suicide to go against him in a primary.

"The Democratic Party was telling Democrats to hold their nose and vote for Forbes," Seltzer said. ‘I don’t hold my nose. … We’re in a country where we have choices, and if we donít take advantage of the choices, we’re missing the whole point of a democracy."

Seltzer, who she still has relatives in Israel and has returned there many times, said her parents taught her that it was the United States to which the family owed so much.

"There was always the sense that we had an obligation to this country: to give something back," she said. "They brought me up to have a conscience, to be a moral person, and to be concerned about other people. I think you should make an effort to be a person who is concerned about others, and that you should try to do everything you can when you see things that are not right."