Election 2004: End of the 'Catholic Vote'?:

George Marlin has politics in his blood.

At the tender age of 12, he shook Robert Kennedy's hand. Thirty years later, Marlin was running for mayor of New York City, only to lose to Rudolph Giuliani.

In the late 1990s, Marlin was the chief executive officer of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owned the World Trade Center. His successor died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the twin towers. Marlin has written and edited more than two dozen books, including this year's The American Catholic Voter.

Register correspondent Patrick Novecosky spoke with him recently to discuss growing up Catholic in New York, the 2004 elections and the future of the Catholic vote.

What was it like growing up in Brooklyn?

Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was a microcosm of what the Church was nationally. It was an inner-city, blue-collar ethnic parish. Life centered around the parish.

I was an altar boy, and that was a step above everybody in those days. The worst was 6 o'clock in the morning. Not only was it early, but the nuns from the school would go to that Mass. I remember sort of dozing off on the altar, and the nun I had at the time waited outside the sacristy doorway and grabbed me by the hair when I went running home to get breakfast.

It was an ethnic neighborhood. There was a parish in every direction from my house three or four blocks away. We exemplified what I did not learn until I was in college and heard the term “subsidiarity.” We lived it and didn't know there was a philosophical term for it. That was what growing up was in the old-fashioned neighborhood, and things worked.

Your dad and grandfather were New York City cops. Why didn't you follow in their footsteps?

The Irish mentality, of course, was civil service, civil service. But my father took a slightly different attitude. It was like, “You're going to go to college.” He had this mentality that it was going to be different for me.

Tell me about your family's faith life growing up.

There were assumptions that the Church was always right and you, as a youth, were wrong if you ever dared question something. But it wasn't wear-your-religion-on-your-sleeve type. It was just neighborhood parish life, and it was a simple life. There was unity among people because we all belonged to the parish. Mothers would sit outside in the afternoon and keep an eye on kids. Most mothers stayed at home at that time. So it was the Catholicism of the '50s, of the old neighborhoods.

How did you get such an early start in politics?

I remember as a kid in 1964 waiting in line for three hours in a mob scene, waiting for Bobby Kennedy to drive by. He was running for United States senator in 1964, and I shook Robert F. Kennedy's hand that day. It was a year after John F. Kennedy was killed and before everything we know about the Kennedys that we do today. When he arrived, it was like the second coming. He came in an open convertible Cadillac. It was just an incredible moment.

I remember seeing (National Review founder William F.) Buckley debate when he was running for mayor of New York. I was still in grammar school in November 1965. He added respectability to conservative politics again, and he excited a whole young generation of people in New York City. I was out on street corners handing out fliers for him at the age of 13.

I didn't play basketball. I didn't play baseball. I debated and was involved in politics — street-corner politics through the '60s and '70s. Politics was certainly not my vocation, because one doesn't make a living out of it. But it was certainly a lifelong avocation and my first love.

Tell me about the run for mayor in 1993. What led to that?

It was an extraordinary period. David Dinkins was the mayor of New York. Things were falling apart rapidly. We had great battles. Rudy Giuliani, a baptized Roman Catholic, was [endorsed by] the New York State Liberal Party. In the late '80s, he was pro-life, but he became pro-abortion, pro-gay rights, pro-partial-birth abortion, pro-funding of abortion, be it federal, state or city level.

Even though the city was going to hell in a handbasket, we wanted to stand on certain pro-life and cultural principles that mattered to us. I understand the fun Bill Buckley had running for mayor in 1965. When you know you can't win, you go out there and broker ideas. On some of the fiscal, economic ideas, we pushed Giuliani to the right on those issues where he didn't want to be.

Giuliani refused to debate me. I debated Mayor Dinkins on a few occasions and pulled out a rubber chicken. That hit front-page news nationally, saying Rudy was a chicken.

What led you to write The American Catholic Voter?

Two years ago, I wrote Fighting the Good Fight: A History of the New York Conservative Party. That was sort of the microcosm for The American Catholic Voter.

I was thinking about the book for over a decade, and my wife was delighted when I finally got started because I had 20 boxes of paper sitting in the basement gathering dust for 15 years. I firmly believe there was a story to tell about those inner-city, blue-collar ethnics, the immigrants who came to this nation — how they got involved in the political process and how they lived the concept of subsidiarity without knowing what that term meant.

The Catholic voter decided many presidential elections, many of them for the right reasons. The idea of this book was to show a rich history, show how the vote is relevant, show how the Catholic voter came of age with Al Smith. [They evolved into] what became known as Reagan Democrats. They were part of the base that voted in November and is still relevant, voting along cultural lines for the issues that matter to all of us.

People have said that today there is no Catholic vote.

You can't just look at a generic number. They say 52% of Catholic voters went for George Bush. You have to break it down between the practicing Catholic and the “cafeteria Catholic.” John Kerry carried the cafeteria Catholics while generically he lost the Catholic vote because the practicing Catholic came out in greater numbers and voted for George Bush. Four years ago, Bush got about 57% of the practicing Catholic vote. This year, he got 64.

Who's winning the culture war?

I live in New York and so it seems we're losing every time you turn around. People like George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani, both baptized Catholics. They've walked away on everything.

However, I gave a couple of speeches to the Legatus group in St. Louis a couple of months ago, and I see “red America.” There is still a coterie of solid citizens. To see those red states is encouraging. It's a part of America I didn't grow up with, but I'm grateful it's there.

What we're seeing is a new generation. The mothers having babies are pro-life. The guys who enter the seminary these days are solid guys. They're genuine. So I think the tide is turning. Time is on our side. The numbers are on our side. I think it's going to get better.

Is politics in your future?

To quote Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, “Never say never.” The book I wrote on the Catholic voter was a book that I was thinking about for years. It was a labor of love writing it. Thanks to Mr. Kerry, it got a lot of attention and had a very good run. The next couple of years, we'll see what happens.

Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.