2002-12-28 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Closing The Gate
By Stuart Mirsky

Closing The Gate

A recent note in this paper told us that the Gateway Republican Club was shutting its doors for the second time in a generation. This group, revived in the early nineties by Tom Carney and Tom Swift, two old-line Republican politicos, had tried valiantly for over a decade to restore the two-party system to Rockaway politics. Alas, it was not to be.

The two Toms worked diligently throughout the nineties to bring in new members and drum up attention for Rockaway's Republican club in what is, in essence, a thoroughly Democratic town. Why did they bother? The usual reasons: interest in poltics, a commitment to Republican ideas, frustration at being frozen out of the process here on the peninsula, a desire to accomplish something and, perhaps, to win an elective office.

While Tom and Tom were running things, local Republicans in Rockaway were galvanized. I was there with them, myself, when they reached out to Al Stabile and offered him the club's endorsement. And I worked closely with Tom Swift in a number of his abortive runs for the State Assembly. It was invigorating. There was a sense that we could make a difference and that we might even make the Democrats out here stop taking us for granted.

I had my own reasons for getting involved. Having been a lifelong Democrat I watched with fascination as Ronald Reagan accomplished things with his Republican philosophy that Democrats had only talked about. Although I had never voted for Reagan, by the time George H. W. Bush ran, I had decided to cast my vote for a Republican on the national level. Later, when I saw how shabbily the media and mainstream Democrats treated Bush senior, who I thought had performed quite well in his single presidential term, I decided to formalize my switch and made the jump to the Republicans.

I chose to become actively involved with the two Toms when former Councilman Walter Ward's staff blew me off over a local tax issue. That cinched it for me and I decided that all organizations, even the Democratic Party, needed a little competition if they were going to perform at their best! So I sought out and found Tom and Tom and joined the Gateway Republican Club, a group they had only recently revived after some earlier scandals and political floundering had prompted a previous shutdown.

Unfortunately, we never got any real traction out here in Rockaway. The Democratic Party was too strong, perhaps because local folks are just more comfortable with the Democratic political philosophy, or because most people just don't like to buck trends. In the end, Tom Swift's several runs for Assembly made no ripples on the pond and club membership faltered. Our biggest success was supporting Al Stabile in his effort to unseat Walter Ward. But Al seemed to have other fish to fry, as soon as he got elected, and his two terms were marked by disagreements and rancor with Rockaway's Republicans. John Baxter, then a mainstay of the Gateway Club, went over to the Independence Party out of frustration and his brother, Owen Baxter, did a brief stint as club president after Tom Carney stepped down. Tom Swift passed on not long afterwards, unfortunately, leaving a big gap for the club. And Tom Carney, sadly, soon followed.

We went into a long period of decline as Al Stabile shifted the focus of his own peculiar brand of Republican politics over to the mainland, leaving us a club more or less out of water. I allowed my membership to lapse since the club's monthly meetings had begun to seem pointless. Nothing of any note was happening and there was no fire left in the collective belly. Attending the meetings began to feel like the proverbial exercise in futility. Kenny Huhn tried to keep the club alive but even he, in the end, saw the futility of this.

But where, then, does that leave Rockaway? Well, John Baxter has been trying valiantly to build a grassroots organization for the Independence party here but this has never really caught fire. So what have we got left? Just the Democrats . . . multiple iterations of this party in fact, including a western branch and an eastern (to make room, I suppose, for all those trying to play in the lone Democratic tent). Yet, Rockaway is not the better for this.

Monopolies lead to stagnation and institutional unresponsiveness (as I found out when I needed Walter Ward's help so many years ago). They are also characteristic of the one party politics of the old Soviet Union, a system that seems the very antithesis of what we pride ourselves on. Isn't it better, after all, to have a choice and know that our political representatives really do have to stay on top of issues if they want to keep their jobs? A political civil service system, with more or less guaranteed tenure, is just as bad as the civil service system that weighs down our city agencies. Yet, without a viable political alternative, that is all we can hope for.

Is there any reason to be a Republican instead of a Democrat in today's New York, besides the desire to have some choice in our elections? I would suggest that there is. Democrats stand for more robust government which includes a greater emphasis on services to the public and the taxes needed to support and pay for those services. What does the Republican party stand for? Aside from our wayward mayor who seems unsure whether he is really a Republican at all these days, Republicans in general stand for more restricted government. This is not the same thing as no government or even minimal government (you need Libertarians or anarchists for that). Rather, restricted government means tighter reins on the governing agencies, less freely flowing resources and stronger requirements for accountability. In short, an emphasis on tighter management over more expansive government.

On the Democratic view, what is really needed is more funding for all those added programs and services, thus higher relative taxes. On the Republican view, the funding spigots should be opened with great reluctantly and care to reduce government's tendency to profligacy and waste. Thus, in principle, Republicans are for lower taxes. Obviously this doesn't always work out quite so simply in the real world but, I submit, there is a genuine philosophical difference between the two parties. And a reason for some folks here in Rockaway to choose the loyal opposition.

With the demise of the Gateway Republicans for the second time in 20 years, we are all a little worse off than before. But this needn't be the end of it. Surely there are still a few registered Republicans left in Rockaway, Republicans who  haven't yet gone the way of the Dodo Bird but can, like the Piping Plover, be called back from the brink of extinction. The Gateway Republican Club may be gone again from our midst but there is still room enough, and time, for the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and even George W. Bush to come up for air for a third time in the choppy currents of Rockaway. And like they say, maybe the third time's the charm.

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