The Rockaway Irregular
In this last election cycle many in New York City who believed President Bush deserved to be re-elected found themselves out in the cold. Not only were many reluctant to voice their presidential preference in public, for fear of a blue state backlash from certain neighbors and friends, many couldn’t even find an outlet through which to offer the embattled president their support. Seeing the lopsided anti-Bush sentiment in our part of the country, the national Republican Party and the President’s own re-election campaign apparently came to a similar conclusion and chose to put their resources to work elsewhere. The New York State GOP must have done the same since we saw neither hide nor hair of them throughout much of the recent campaign. Still, some were determined to make their voices heard.
Last December a few local folks out here started meeting in a friend’s garage to smoke a few cigars in the evening and bemoan the dearth of political competition in this town. Out of that small gesture of political commiseration an idea took root. Just because no one seemed to be out there vocally supporting the President in New York City didn’t mean no one should be. By March of ‘04 this band of cigar chomping “brothers” had formed themselves into a new club: the Rockaway Republicans.
They held their first official meeting one icy evening late that month, as bitter winds swept in across Jamaica Bay, pelting participants with stinging sleet and freezing hail. Some twenty-five people showed up on that first, inclement night, all champing at the bit to revive Republican fortunes and support George W. Bush in the run-up to the presidential election. The new club’s founders were surprised on that first evening by the turnout, despite the awful weather. And they continued to be surprised in April, May and June as membership kept growing.
By mid-July the newly formed Rockaway Republicans were hosting 140 people in support of the President, a feat they managed to duplicate during the Republican national convention in early September.
In the interim, they sailed a “boat for Bush” (with campaign banner waving dramatically in the wind) up and down the Hudson during the convention, garnering many surreptitious “thumbs up” signals from sympathetic Coast Guardsmen and harbor police along the way. As many in this city were gearing up to angrily protest the presence of the Republican convention and this President, the Rockaway Republicans were finding a surprising level of goodwill and unspoken support for Bush among New York’s working people.
But one thing continued to stymie them: the Republican leadership itself. As election time drew near, the Rockaway Republicans desperately contacted the higher-ups in their party with lists of volunteers they’d gathered to man local get-out-the-vote phone banks, a common practice in election campaigns during crunch time.
There was zero interest in the idea. Nor was this the first time they had encountered such disinterest. A year before, when they were just gearing up, they had reached out to nearly everyone they could think of in the Republican hierarchy to offer their services in the presidential campaign and ask for support in their own efforts to re-start a Republican group in Rockaway.
The only answer they ever got back, for their troubles, was a deafening silence as the countless phone calls they made consistently went unreturned.
Eventually, they did get a meeting with some of the leaders at which they offered their support in exchange for recognition as a newly formed Republican club. The response? Support, they were told, was contingent on their good behavior! They were astonished, especially since they had expected a somewhat warmer reception from the political powers-that-be in the local Republican hierarchy, thinking they were offering the leadership one more local organization to add to a presumably larger portfolio of local groups and clubs. But it turned out their desire to create a new Republican club in Rockaway, and become part of the GOP in New York State, only raised red flags for some.
In mid-August of this past year the membership of the newly formed Rockaway Republicans voted to formally request a Republican Party charter from the county organization and dutifully sent off a letter to the leadership to this effect. They have yet to hear back.
Despite the President’s clear victory in November and significant Republican gains elsewhere in the nation, here in New York the outcome couldn’t have been more different. In our state Republicans lost ground across the board as the Republican majority in the State Senate narrowed considerably and the Democratic majority in the Assembly grew.
Here in Rockaway the Queens Republican Party didn’t even bother to run anyone against the perennial Democratic incumbent who holds our local Assembly seat. Other local elections in this state followed the same trajectory.
Statewide, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate went down to ignominious defeat after a lackluster and under-funded campaign, handing the Democratic incumbent, Chuck Schumer, an historic win, despite the fact that another Republican candidate for U.S. Senate had been unceremoniously elbowed aside earlier in the primary season so that Albany’s handpicked candidate could get the nod. But Albany’s guy left no footprints, testimony to a disgruntled Republican rank-and-file, denied the chance to select their own candidate, and to a party leadership no longer prepared to mount and sustain a viable challenge to a sometimes controversial incumbent.
So, where does all this leave Rockaway’s newly formed Republican club? After an energetic year of building grassroots support for President Bush, despite disinterest that sometimes bordered on overt hostility from state and local Republican higher-ups, the Rockaway Republicans seem reluctant to just shut their doors and go back to grumbling in a few locals’ garages.
Even though they no longer expect to see an official Republican charter in their lifetimes (these things must be worth their weight in gold, the way the leadership seems to begrudge granting them!), they’ve decided to keep their organization alive anyway. They recently invited downstate Republican leaders, activists and those with an interest in reviving New York Republican fortunes to join them in a grassroots summit, to be hosted in Rockaway, after the New Year.
So far the level of response has been remarkable. But perhaps this isn’t so surprising. Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum and so, presumably, does democracy. If Republicans in New York State care about finding their voice again and if New York is ever to see the return of genuine competition in the voting booth, people who care can no longer afford to sit back and wait for their designated leaders to lead them. As newly elected Rockaway Republican Club President Tom Lynch recently noted, “If we don’t build on the president’s momentum now, then we really do deserve to be blue.