2005-01-21 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Summitry in Rockaway
by Stuart W. Mirsky

A little more than a week ago last Tuesday, on January 11, Rockaway’s newest political group, the eponymously named Rockaway Republicans, made history of sorts by hosting a “Downstate Grassroots Republican Summit” at the Belle Harbor Yacht Club. Conceived as a means to bring grassroots GOPers together, in the aftermath of a dismal statewide electoral performance (even while President Bush and other Republicans were showing their stuff nationally), the summit was billed as a gathering of Republican leaders, activists and wannabes aimed at identifying the obstacles facing the New York GOP and finding means to overcome them.

With a standing room only crowd (there were 89 sign-ins, but many who didn’t, so the count of attendees was probably well over a hundred), party bigwigs from Queens County and elsewhere addressed folks from Glendale, Middle Village, Queens Village, Sunnyside, Woodside, Forest Park, Howard Beach, Ozone Park, Rockaway, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Manhattan, the Bronx and at least one fellow who came all the way from Philadelphia!

Queens County leader, State Senator Serph Maltese, led off the speakers’ roster with a spirited defense of his leadership in Queens. But that didn’t play well with some. Rockaway Republicans President Tom Lynch broke with protocol, by evening’s end, to challenge the State Senator on his lack of responsiveness and to demand an answer to the Rockaway Republicans’ longstanding request for an official state GOP charter. The Rockaway club, formed roughly ten months ago to support President Bush’s re-election efforts and to replace the old Gateway Republican Club (which closed its doors a few years back), has had a formal request for a charter on the Queens leader’s desk for the past five months without benefit of answer or acknowledgement.

The State Senator told Tom making such a decision was a serious step that depended on the agreement of the Republican district leaders, Terri Ariola and Ed O’Hare, who are both up for re-election this year. This didn’t square with other information Tom had and he pressed the Senator, leading to a red-faced exchange at one point. Other Rockaway Republicans waded in to support Tom’s request for answers and, while some thought Tom was a little gauche to have even broached the subject at a summit intended to heal past wounds, many others supported him for finally airing the matter in public. At the least, this raised a larger question: whether a holder of an elective office, like the State Senator, is even the right person to be leading his party organization because of inherent conflicts of interest that inevitably cause him to divide his time between efforts to retain his Senate seat and his responsibility to support and lead his party in achieving other elective offices. The two hats worn by the current Queens County Republican leader may not only be too demanding for one person, they may represent a clear conflict of commitments.

The other interesting thing that came out of the summit was the surprising level of discontent with Mayor Bloomberg. The Mayor, who did not attend but sent a representative, came under withering criticism from summit moderator Patrick Hurley, President of the Regular Republican Club of Woodside Queens, at the outset, and this set the tone for a series of attacks on the Mayor by various attendees during the follow-up question and answer period. Former Queens City Councilman and Republican elder statesman Tom Ognibene, who followed State Senator Maltese at the rostrum, sounded very much like a candidate for mayor himself and, in fact, word leaked out after the summit that that’s just what Ognibene has decided to become. The former City Councilman invoked the Giuliani years and reminded folks of the turnaround the former mayor had effected in the city’s fortunes, suggesting that our current mayor, even if nominally a Republican, has departed from this path.

Regrettably, the hoped-for discussion of substantive issues never really took off as questioners went after Bloomberg, though a few good ideas did manage to find their way onto the table. One speaker, Steve Shaw of Brooklyn, another insurgent challenger to Mayor Bloomberg, proposed the GOP develop ways to set annual goals for itself, including running candidates in key districts, and for systematizing candidate recruitment and fund raising. George Greco, Chairman of the Rockaway Republicans, proposed that downstate Republicans, particularly within the five boroughs, look into creating a metropolitan “czar” to force the disparate groups and leaders to start working together by focusing on key issues and helping coordinate the necessary sharing of information and resources.

Another summit speaker, Robert Hornak, Chairman of the Young Republicans of New York, proposed the GOP convene a leadership working group as a means of following up on the efforts kicked off at the summit and stressed that the leaders aren’t to blame, alone, for the current problems, noting that Republican rank-and-file and self-styled activists are just as culpable. “We let things get to this stage,” he said, “and now we have to fix them.” By contrast Michael Benjamin, Chairman of the newly formed conservative PAC “Save New York,” emphasized the problems that have arisen as a result of a failure to lead from the top. Benjamin recalled his recent experiences as he crisscrossed the state seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, a nomination that was ultimately denied him by party bosses in Albany. “Local Republican organizations are in disarray everywhere,” said Benjamin, “and we have to work to change that by taking back the leadership of our party.”

The real question for Rockawayites, of course, is what comes of all this? As the new election year wends its way round, we’re looking at a Mayoral race, as well as a race for City Council and a number of district leadership contests here in our neck of the woods. Similar races will be occurring in other districts around the city, as well. Historically, in Rockaway, in Queens more generally, and in much of New York City itself, Republicans have been unable to mount any serious competition to their Democratic rivals. It’s unlikely the summit, as groundbreaking as it was, can change this uncompetitive position overnight.

But it promises to be a start. Built on a coalition of local social conservatives, supporters of a strong national defense, fiscal moderates, libertarians and disenfranchised former Democrats, the Rockaway Republicans are still getting their sea-legs.

They haven’t really fielded any candidates of their own to date (though they were quick to support one of their members, Gerry Cronin, when he declared against Congressman Anthony Weiner in a failed bid for the Congressman’s seat last November). Despite all their noise, the Rockaway Republicans are still tyros in the political game, even though they’ve already made a few waves and helped stir the local Republican surf. But they’re going to have to do more as we slide into the new election cycle.

They need to declare themselves in the mayoral race, at some point, while still building bridges to other GOP groups in Queens, many of which are already slipping into open rebellion against a Republican mayor, new to their party, who has thus far failed to secure his Republican base. With Ognibene challenging Bloomberg in the primary this election year, the question of where local groups, like the Rockaway Republicans, stand will count more than ever before. More importantly, the Rockaway Republicans, more than a hundred strong at this juncture, will have to start getting serious about their game if they’re to ultimately take their place as equals beside the existing Democratic machine here on the peninsula.

One way to do that is to keep the ball they’ve now put in play in the air, by making something of that drop-kick they recently initiated when they brought Republicans of all stripes to our town to begin to rebuild their party and hopes. rockirreg@aol.com.    

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