UTICA, NY — UTICA, N.Y. -- Anita Maxwell laughs when she recalls an encounter with an elder of the Italian-American community here who seemed puzzled by her political career. "He said, 'You look like a plump Italian housewife,' " she says, "and so I am."
But no one would call Anita Maxwell your average housewife. At 61, she has 11 children and 21 grandchildren and she is running for a seat in the New York Senate as a decidedly progressive Democrat and strong supporter of abortion rights.
"They just didn't believe it because I'm Italian and I have 11 kids," she says.
Maxwell is one of nine Democrats -- eight of them women -- who are relying heavily, although by no means exclusively, on the abortion-rights issue in a targeted Democratic attempt to gain the four seats that would give the party of Mario Cuomo control of the state legislature. And the fact that she is a serious player in a strongly Republican district in central New York speaks volumes about how the abortion-rights issue has begun to win acceptance even among culturally conservative voters such as those in Utica's Italian-American community.
"I think the issue has moved," says Tony Faga, the Oneida County Democratic chairman. "They can't handle Jesse Jackson but this" -- he shrugs expressively to say abortion is different. Indeed, a benchmark poll of the district found 59 percent of the voters identifying themselves as "pro-choice."
Maxwell is a definite underdog. The district has almost 13,000 more Republicans than Democrats, and her opponent, William Sears, is a veteran of the New York Assembly seeking to fill the seat of a Republican who died since the last election.
But the campaign has been lifted to special prominence by an intense effort both parties are making in the Senate campaign. Maxwell says she has been assured that if she raises $100,000 there will be a matching amount in money and technical expertise from the state campaign committee. State Sen. Tony Masiello of Buffalo, chairman of the Democratic committee, says, "This is the most ambitious plan we've ever had."
Cuomo, confronted only by a political joke in his own campaign for re-election, has been heavily involved in raising money for a Democratic effort that will spend perhaps $1 million before Nov. 6. The goal is control of the redistricting process that is expected to cost New York three House seats. If the Democrats succeed, at least two and possibly all three seats to be forfeited will be those now held by Republicans.
Abortion is not the only issue in the campaign in the targeted districts. Masiello says support for a ban on assault weapons is "off the charts" all over the state. The early survey here found 83 percent support for such legislation. And Maxwell says she is finding pervasive concern about the environment, as well as significant sentiment against incumbents. "They're looking for something different, not the same good old boys," she says.
Maxwell also has other clubs in her bag. She and her husband operated a dairy farm in Herkimer County for 41 years and she has been heavily involved as an activist in farm organizations. And she is strongly in favor of the death-penalty legislation Cuomo has consistently vetoed.
But the issue that probably has the greatest potential for cutting across party lines is abortion rights. It is the one, Masiello says, most responsible for the willingness to run of such prominent local women as Sherrye P. Henry, a former radio talk-show host running on Long Island, and Kathleen A. Gaffney, who quit her $85,000-a-year post as Broome County health commissioner.
Maxwell goes down the line on the abortion-rights question. On public funding, she says: "If we're going to have abortion, it shouldn't be only for the rich." On parental consent, she argues that "you can't legislate communication" between parents and their children.
In fact, there is little chance of significant restrictions on abortion in New York whatever the outcome of the contest for the state Senate -- not as long as Cuomo rules the roost. But the issue has given the Democrats here and in perhaps eight or nine other states a valuable tool that can be employed for a variety of purposes in state politics.
And in Anita Maxwell's case, it is clearly a defining issue. She is not just "a plump Italian housewife"; she is proof that the abortion-rights question cuts across many of the old lines of American politics.