George M. Michaels

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George M. Michaels
New York Assemblyman from Cayuga County
In office
Preceded byCharles A. Cusick
Succeeded byDistrict Abolished
New York Assemblyman from the 137th District
In office
Preceded byDistrict Created
Succeeded byV. Sumner Carroll
New York Assemblyman from the 122nd District
In office
Preceded byLouis H. Folmer
Succeeded byLloyd Stephen Riford, Jr.
Personal details
Born(1910-09-15)September 15, 1910
DiedDecember 3, 1992(1992-12-03) (aged 82)
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Helen Wetzler
ChildrenThree Sons
ResidenceAuburn, New York
Alma materCornell University
Brooklyn Law School

George M. Michaels (September 15, 1910 – December 3, 1992) was an American Democratic Party politician from New York, who served in the New York State Assembly from 1961 to 1966 and 1969 to 1970, where he was best known for his changed vote that played a pivotal role in the passage of an expanded abortion rights law in New York State.


Early life[edit]

Michaels was born on September 15, 1910 (as per the Social Security Death Index) in College Point, Queens, New York City. He attended Cornell University, and graduated from Brooklyn Law School. Then he practiced law in Auburn, Cayuga County, New York. He served in the United States Marine Corps during World War II, enlisting as a private and leaving as a captain.[1]

He was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1961 to 1966, sitting in the 173rd, 174th, 175th and 176th New York State Legislatures. In 1966, the new apportionment joined Cayuga and Cortland counties into the 122nd District, and Michaels declined to run for re-election.[2] Michaels was again a member of the State Assembly in 1969 and 1970. In the Assembly he was an advocate for expanded state aid to rural school districts and in sentencing and prison issues.[1] He was the sponsor of the 1970 bill that made the bluebird the official state bird of New York.[3]

New York's abortion law[edit]

Michaels supported what he saw as a woman's right to choose to have an abortion on a personal basis. At the request of the Cayuga County Democratic Committee he had voted twice against efforts to loosen restrictions, including an early April 1970 effort that was narrowly defeated.[1]

Franz Leichter, a Democratic Assemblyman from Manhattan drafted a bill expanding abortion rights together with Republican Assemblywoman Constance Cook of upstate Tompkins County, New York, proposing legislation that included no restrictions on the practice of abortion. The bill passed in the Senate on March 18, 1970 after five hours of debate by a vote of 31–26. For the Assembly, the bill was amended to allow for women to have abortions until their 24th week of pregnancy or at any time to protect the life of the mother.[4] As the roll call progressed in the Assembly on April 9, 1970, the legislature deadlocked at 74 in favor and 74 opposed, with the Assembly speaker not voting in a case when it did not make a difference, leaving the count two short of the absolute majority of 76 members of the 150-member Assembly needed to pass the bill.[5]

Michaels had earlier voted against the proposal during the roll call, but rose to speak before the Clerk of the Assembly could close the vote and bring it to defeat. Those assembled in the galleries were unsure of his purpose, but he alluded to his intentions when he said that his constituents were going to "condemn me for what I am about to do".[5] He continued with his speech, stating "I realize, Mr. Speaker, that I am terminating my political career, but I cannot in good conscience sit here and allow my vote to be the one that defeats this bill ... [and asked] that my vote be changed from "no" to "yes"". His prediction regarding his political future turned out to be accurate.[5][6] In explaining his change of heart, Michaels stated that "One of my sons just called me a whore for the vote I cast against this" and that another son had insisted: "Dad, for God's sake, don't let your vote be the vote that defeats this bill." After his changed vote, the chamber erupted in bedlam, Michaels buried his face in his hands, and one person shouted epithets at him.[5]

With the switch by Michaels, the vote stood 75 to 73, and the Speaker was called to vote, this being a case when the speaker's vote would directly influence the result. Speaker Perry Duryea voted also for the law, and it passed by a vote of 76 to 73 in the Assembly. Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the law the next day and the U.S. Supreme Court patterned its ruling in its landmark January 1973 decision Roe v. Wade on the New York law.[4]

Michaels ran for a sixth term of office in 1970 but did not receive the nomination of county leaders angered by his vote on the abortion law.[7] On June 23, he ran in the Democratic primary and lost in a four-way race, joining D. Clinton Dominick III, a Republican who had sponsored the bill in the State Senate who also lost in the primary, apparently due to his support for the abortion bill.[8] In November, Michaels ran on the Liberal ticket for re-election, but was defeated by Republican Lloyd Stephen Riford Jr..

Michaels died on December 3, 1992 at his home in Auburn, New York, after a long illness. He was survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Helen Wetzler, three sons and eight grandchildren.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Saxon, Wolfgang. "George Michaels, 80, Legislator Who Changed Abortion Law, Dies ", The New York Times, December 5, 1992. Accessed January 24, 2009.
  2. ^ Slayton Leaves Business To Campaign For Folmer Post in The Cortland Democrat, of Cortland, on October 13, 1966
  3. ^ Kinkead, Eugene. "A Rumor in the Air: The Story of the New York State Bird", New York State Bluebird Society. Accessed January 24, 2009.
  4. ^ a b Hevesi, Dennis. "Constance E. Cook, 89, Who Wrote Abortion Law, Is Dead", The New York Times, January 24, 2009. Accessed January 24, 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d Perez-Pena, Richard. "'70 Abortion Law: New York Said Yes, Stunning the Nation", The New York Times, April 9, 2000. Accessed January 24, 2009.
  6. ^ Saxon, Wolfgang. "George Michaels, 80, Legislator Who Changed Abortion Law, Dies", The New York Times, December 5, 1992. Accessed January 24, 2009.
  7. ^ "Denied Party Aid, Michaels to Run; Assemblyman Who Backed Abortion Reform Is Firm", The New York Times, April 27, 1970. Accessed January 24, 2009.
  8. ^ Kovach, Bill. "Two Key Backers of Abortion Reform in the Legislature Are Defeated Upstate", The New York Times, June 24, 1970. Accessed January 24, 2009.
New York Assembly
Preceded by
Charles A. Cusick
New York State Assembly
Cayuga County

Succeeded by
district abolished
Preceded by
new district
New York State Assembly
137th District

Succeeded by
V. Sumner Carroll
Preceded by
Louis H. Folmer
New York State Assembly
122nd District

Succeeded by
Lloyd Stephen Riford, Jr.