Bob Fertik Profiled in Newsday

Ellis Henican

Puttin' Some Kick In the Old Donkey

September 27, 2002

Republicans prefer it when Democrats roll over and play dead.

That's not surprising, of course. What's surprising is this: A lot of Democrats seem to prefer it when Democrats roll over and play dead.

Well, Bob Fertik definitely isn't one of those death-wish Democrats.

"In the Clinton years," Fertik was saying yesterday from his lair in Jackson Heights, "the right-wing media was pounding 24 hours a day. The Clinton administration chose never to respond to the attacks. As a result, we went through the whole Whitewater investigation, which turned out to be absolutely nothing, which led to Monica and impeachment. The Republicans play hardball and they never let up. Until the Democrats learn how to fight back, we will always lose."

And really, how much fun is that?

Holed up in a converted maid's room in his family's Queens apartment - not far from the washer-dryer - Fertik has been trying to put the fight back into his fellow Democrats. A longtime political activist with strong ties to the women's movement, he isn't new to these battles. Nor is he bashful about incorporating nw technology into the fight.

The result: a vibrant Internet community of fellow Democratic activists and a merciless, Republican-bashing Web site, www.democrats.com.

He and co-founder David Lytel, who ran the White House Web site in the Clinton years and still works from Washington, have assembled a like-minded cadre of "aggressive progressives," their term. Their assaults employ the rhetorical baseball bat and the mischievous jab.

Offering a $1,000 reward for proof that George W. Bush ever served in the military.

Compiling one of the Web's best dossiers against Bush's seemingly boundless bellicosity.

Dishing up wicked parodies - and somber critiques - of Bush fund-raising abuses, Republican electoral schemes, corporate influence peddling and the alleged dating habits of certain conservative pundits.

Who says the political and the personal don't collide? Call it fighting like Republicans usually do.

"We operate in real time," Fertik said. "We update constantly. We send out a daily e-mail newsletter to 100,000 Democratic activists. We urge people to pick up the phone, to call, to write, to e-mail, to aggressively challenge the policies of the right wing."

Internet politics pioneer Kurt Ehrenberg of fastpolitics.com says he's become a fan. "You gotta love a Web site where you can play a game called, 'Pick Up Ann Coulter' and the front page cartoon calls the president of the United States a drunken chicken-hawk," Ehrenberg joked.

No, these people aren't shy.

Democrats.com launched at the party's convention in 2000. The site picked up traffic when "the election was stolen from Al Gore" - no quotes needed on that at democrats.com. The mad dash toward war in Iraq has focused more attention still.

But now, something unexpected is happening. Could it be Fertik and his in-your-face posse are actually getting results?

All of sudden, without much warning, some of the Democratic Party's dozing leaders are waking up. It's as if they are tired of being pushed around.

Al Gore got the week off to a pugnacious start, warning that the Bush administration's aggressiveness toward Iraq will "severely damage" the broader war on terror and will weaken America's role in the world. The former vice president (and 2,000 vote-fraud victims) even wondered out loud about the political motives behind Bush's theatrical urgency - right before the midterm elections in an economy heading south.

Then, before you knew it, Gore wasn't alone. Across the Democratic leadership, the formerly tongue-tied were clearing their throats.

Wednesday, here was Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle expressing outrage - yes, outrage - at the way Bush had questioned some Democrats' patriotism.

"That is outrageous! Outrageous! The president ought to apologize!" Daschle roared.

By yesterday, even Dick Gephardt, the always measured Democratic leader in the House, seemed to be jumping on board. He demanded the Bush administration "take security out of politics."

You go, Congressman!

And all of it couldn't help but provide a small sense of satisfaction on one small corner of Queens.

Bob Fertik grew up right around here. Attended PS 69 and IS 145, before Brown and Yale. He worked the cash register at his father's small store, Pick-a-Pocket Books at 79th Street and 37th Avenue.

And now, here he was - not taking credit. There's no cause to do that. He was just one of many energized Democrats, hoping that maybe, just maybe, a rusty political party was creaking back to life.

"It's the power of the grass roots," Fertik said. "The party leaders are beginning to discover it."